Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer


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Be Bold for Change on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and the campaign theme is Be Bold for Change.  Big Lottery Fund are speaking to women who have made a big change in their lives and their communities.  Our volunteer peer advocates make a tremendous contribution, choosing to give their time to support their peers because they know that they can use their personal experience of cancer to make a difference to other older people’s lives.

 

Today we’re focusing attention on Claire’s Story, from our recent publication Time: Our Gift to You, which features volunteer peer advocates talking about why they volunteer, and what they themselves gain from their volunteering experience.  Claire has used her own experience of breast cancer to support Sally, her advocacy partner who has the same diagnosis.

Claire’s volunteering story:

“Last year, I decided to volunteer as a peer advocate in Oxfordshire because I could see at first hand, as I was going through my treatment, that there were many people who were struggling to find their way through the healthcare system in our area and to access the support they needed. It seemed obvious to me that a person who has been treated for cancer is potentially in a very strong position to support another person going through the same or similar treatment and experience.

One of the older people affected by cancer that I’ve supported is Sally (not her real name). She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and was referred to Oxfordshire Advocacy by her specialist breast nurse. Sally lives alone, struggles to get out and had become very isolated and depressed. When I first met her, she talked often about the diagnosis being the “final straw” and I recognised many of the feelings that I had felt when I was first diagnosed: anger, fear, sadness, even despair.

In the first few weeks when I visited Sally at her home, we often would just talk and share experiences and I know that she really appreciated that someone had taken the time to sit and listen and talk. I knew that when you are first diagnosed with cancer you do get quite a long appointment slot with your consultant and your specialist nurse, but you are in a state of shock and you can’t really take things in, and you are certainly not able to talk through how you are feeling. You need lots of time to process what is happening to you and it is weeks later when you are ready to really think about what is happening to you.

Since then, I have been able to help Sally in a number of ways. For example, I contacted Breast Cancer Care, I knew how good they were from my own experience, and ordered a number of information leaflets for her – some on treatments she had been advised to have, specific information on lymphedema and some on other issues such as her benefits entitlement. Sally suffers from cataracts as well and so I made sure I ordered the information in large print so that she could read the text.

Sally had a specific issue with one of her drugs that was making her feel unwell – I recognised the issue because I had suffered something similar – so I printed some information from the Macmillan Cancer Support website. Sally doesn’t have a computer or access to the internet. I took it to her and read it through for her. I also helped her prepare some questions about this for her next GP appointment and as a result she was able to discuss the issue with her doctor and get the drug changed to minimise the side effects.

Most recently I was able to help Sally with her application for a one-off Macmillan support grant – she wanted to use the money to help with her heating oil. She had being finding it difficult to fill in the form and so she dictated to me what she wanted to say in her application and I was able to write it down for her and I could use my experience to help with the spellings of all the drugs she was taking! She said that receiving the money was very important to her as it eased her worries about putting the heating on in the winter.

I hope that I have managed to convey that working with Sally has also been very rewarding for me. Cancer treatment is often quite technical and complicated and over time you are forced to become quite an expert in the healthcare system and how to get support. I am really glad to be able to put my experience to good use.”

Read more about the inspirational volunteers who are being bold for change on behalf of and alongside their peers here

Marie McWilliams, OPAAL

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The fact that she was confident to say ‘no’ made me realise that as an advocate my job was complete

Mike’s Story, recently released on OPAAL’s YouTube channel highlights some of the many issues advocates support older people affected by cancer with.  Mike talks about the impact of his cancer diagnosis, how his life was taken over by the thought of cancer and how things changed for him when he was introduced to Bob, his volunteer peer advocate.  This story was produced under our Older People’s Cancer Voices work programme, and we have been identifying other stories for future filming.

Today we have a related post written by Aneesah Bana, the Cancer, Older People and Advocacy project advocate from delivery partner ICANN. Aneesah tells us about working with a client who was considering being the subject of one of our Older People’s Cancer Voices films:

When I was approached by OPAAL to identify a client that would be willing to participate in making a short film about their personal ‘cancer journey’ and how advocacy support facilitated them I initially thought I had the ‘ideal’ client who not only made profound changes to her life but was truly inspiring as a person who in the face of various adversities continued to not only remain positive but actually viewed her cancer diagnosis as a ‘blessing in disguise’.

Prior to diagnosis my client led a life that could be described as emotionally and physically chaotic. This started from childhood where she was the youngest from a family of six children. Events beyond my clients control were to shape and mould her childhood and many years into her adult life.

My client’s mother had abandoned her family when she was a child. With a physically and sexually abusive father my client grew up in an environment where neglect and mistreatment became the norm. These early childhood experiences were followed into early adult life as my client went into one abusive relationship to the next. To cope with the continuous emotional trauma ‘x’ became heavily dependent on alcohol and was also a heavy smoker.

I met ‘x’ as an advocate as she was diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer. At the point of meeting ‘x’ had given up alcohol and was successful at stopping smoking. Although my first meeting was to assist her during a DWP meeting I was genuinely intrigued at what prompted her change in lifestyle as my own previous employment role was in child protection and very rarely did I come across individuals who not only had a very clear insight of their problems but could identify the cycle of abuse and how she was able to stop this.

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Although my support with ‘x’ began on a more practical level where I aided her with benefits and appointments this moved on to something far more deep rooted as various dormant and repressed emotional issues came to surface.

‘X’ recognised that her choice in lifestyle was a direct result of severe early childhood trauma. When she was diagnosed with cancer many of these supressed feelings emerged. Consequently she would often tell me of experiencing vivid nightmares and flashbacks of what had happened. I was able to get ‘x’ specialist counselling which dealt with people who were diagnosed with cancer as they also recognised that it was not unusual for people diagnosed to resurface repressed emotional hardships when diagnosed and particularly once treatment has ended.

Over the course of a few months ‘x’ attended the sessions and the changes to her mental attitude were very apparent to see.

We often discussed how throughout life she was not able to recognise that it was healthy to have boundaries, particularly in intimate relationships but also with her own children. As over the years her relationship with her children also became strained as she felt that they too would on occasions manipulate her emotionally. Ultimately ‘x’ discovered that at times it is actually better to say ‘no’ to situations that inherently made her feel uncomfortable.

With these new found healthier boundaries however came more difficulties as she began to put them into place with her own children. Although ‘x’ faced this new difficulty she sincerely acknowledged that they were necessary.

The healthier emotional change also to a certain degree instigated a physical transformation. Where she once again started to take care of her herself and her appearance.

Due to these changes I initially felt that she herself would sincerely benefit by participating in the film. I was of the opinion that ‘x’ could not only visually see how far she had come but hopefully inspire others who are going through a similar experience.

Initially when I asked ‘x’ if she would like to participate in the film she was excited at the prospect and consequently I arranged a meeting with Justin the film maker.

Aneesah

Aneesah

At the meeting we discussed various issues and ‘x’ was very open about her experiences and how I as an advocate aided her. Throughout the discussion ‘x’ was very complimentary of the advocacy service and it was only after the meeting that I was able to help ‘x’ recognise that the changes actually came and were directed from her and I was able to merely facilitate them. Ultimately after the group meeting when I spoke to ‘x’ there was a sense of genuine self-acknowledgement at how far she had come.

Unfortunately soon after ‘x’ decided that she did not want to participate in the film citing that she was not comfortable and that she recognised that her privacy was important.

The old ‘x’ would have been to uncomfortable and would have attempted to appease myself and Justin in fear not to offend or inconvenience anyone by going along , when deep down it’s not what she would have wanted.

Ironically it is just the fact that she was confident to say ‘no’ to the film that made me realise that as an advocate my job was somewhat complete as her privacy was a ‘boundary’ and the new ‘x’ confidently put it into place!

Aneesah Bana, ICANN


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Over time I was able to build a trusting and secure relationship with Valerie

Aneesah, advocate at our delivery partner ICANN, tells us about Valerie (not her real name) and her issues around divulging that she is HIV:

I received a referral for Valerie who had used us as a service in our previous advocacy work. She was diagnosed with breast cancer but was in the very early stages of recovery. Therefore, she was extremely emotional when we initially met. Because I already had an established relationship in our previous advocacy service Valerie felt comfortable to talk to me openly about her feelings and concerns.

Valerie’s ethnicity and cultural background played an important role in how she felt and how she mentally perceived how she should be handling her medical problems. She’s from African descent and although she was living with her sister she was of the strong opinion that she needed to be emotionally strong and expressing her true feelings and worries was a great sign of weakness. Yet equally it was clear to me that these vulnerabilities and insecurities were taking a very big toll on her and was having a far deeper rooted impact on her mental health.

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These feelings of guilt and shame were exasperated as she had also been diagnosed as HIV positive some years ago. Due to Valerie’s concerns she felt that this was another medical condition that needed to be keep hidden. What came through in our conversations was that although fortunately she had a very good and trusting relationship with her consultant the diagnosis of breast cancer meant that she had to constantly disclose the fact that she was HIV positive to other medical health professionals, particularly during the period she was undergoing chemotherapy as the requirement was to have regular blood count checks. Because she was highly conscious and anxious about her diagnosis of HIV coming to light, she found the whole treatment procedure very tense and traumatic.

By the time she established contact with me she had many unexplored and suppressed worries. Her main reason for contact was an approaching benefits assessment. Valerie felt she was forced into a situation where she would have no choice but to discuss medical issues she was highly uncomfortable with.

In our meetings which followed over a couple of weeks I was able to talk and reassure her that she should not feel shame or guilt towards her condition. As time went on we met regularly and Valerie was able to make the vital step of being able to talk about her condition without supressing her true feelings. I was able to reassure her that for the purpose of the benefit assessment it was vital to disclose both of her medical conditions in depth as her eligibility would depend on this.

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Aneesah

Over time I was able to build a trusting and secure relationship with Valerie and this really helped me to advocate on her behalf. Consequently when we were in the assessment she was able to depend on me to talk on her behalf on occasions when she found things difficult to explain to the assessor or when she became uncomfortable.

As a result, Valerie was successful in receiving the benefit and the experience allowed her to recognise that professionals in general work using the ethic and principles of being impartial and non-judgmental. The experience clearly demonstrated to her that although she felt that by disclosing her medical conditions she would be judged and perceived in a negative and possibly prejudiced way, this in reality was clearly not the case.

As a result of this experience and advocacy support we were then able to arrange specialist focused counselling services as a more long term plan to deal with her anxieties.

This particular experience demonstrated to me and to Valerie that by working on her emotional insecurities and coming to terms with her health condition it was going to enable her to consciously make the effort to attend future appointments in relation to regular health checks at the hospital. Ultimately advocacy support empowered her to be in control of her health, which hopefully now will contribute to improving her quality of life.


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“Advocacy kept me going”

Today we hear from Helen Vernon, advocate at programme partner Sefton Pensioners’ Advocacy Centre about Peter, one of the older people affected by cancer she has supported:

Peter referred himself to the Cancer Older People and Advocacy project after a diagnosis of cancer in June 2015. He had recently been told he was palliative.  He had spent 16 months in hospital with a collapsed lung.  Peter had moved in 2014 but regretted the decision due to some issues with the housing association. 

Peter had discovered that there was an electrical cupboard/water tank next to his flat.  His bedroom wall was on the other side of this cupboard and he found his sleep was severely disturbed.  We looked into the option of rehousing but Peter felt that since his diagnosis was terminal he didn’t want to spend the time he had left on a waiting list or moving house. Instead we asked that remedial work be carried out to alleviate the problem.

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I negotiated with the housing association who had put in a request for the job to be completed, but it had been delayed because a surveyor hadn’t been to the flat.  The housing association actioned the job immediately.  I then continued to liaise with the housing association to make sure the job took place and that Peter was satisfied.  

In addition to this I contacted the Department of Work and Pensions to ensure that Attendance Allowance had been started and I explained to him when the payments would take place.

Peter’s family all live abroad and he felt strongly that they should be allowed to live their lives without worrying about him.  He spoke to me at length about his life and his feelings about the cancer. 

When the case was closed I asked Peter what he had thought about the advocacy process.   He said “(Advocacy) gave me a lot of hope that things would improve and they did improve, it (advocacy) kept me going”.

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Helen Vernon

I recently contacted Peter again and he has asked me to revisit him as there are now some issues around his hospital care.  He would like me to write to the hospital on his behalf and to attend appointments with him.  A new case will bring new challenges as his health is declining, but with advocacy support Peter’s wishes will be represented and his voice heard.

Helen Vernon, advocate, Sefton Pensioners’ Advocacy Centre