I am a volunteer advocate from Oxfordshire Advocacy and a Cancer, Older People and Advocacy volunteer.
I first met J at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford prior to her first consultation with the surgeon following a diagnosis of cancer of the uterus (womb). J was a delightful 83-year-old lady, tall, elegant wearing red lipstick and bright red nail varnish on her fingers and toes, and she reminded me of an elderly Meryl Streep. J was a widow, had no immediate family and her next-of-kin was a disabled sister in Birmingham, she did have some very supportive young friends who had young children but who were unable to attend consultations during the day.
The first time we met was at the entrance to the hospital and we went to the gynae outpatients department where a very attractive male doctor (J’s words not mine) told her that the plan was for a hysterectomy within the next few weeks. A Specialist Nurse was in attendance and gave J information about endometrial cancer and treatment. J was not surprised about the plan for surgery, but was determined that she was not going to have chemotherapy as a friend of hers had died following chemotherapy for liver cancer, although she was willing to have radiotherapy. My role at that consultation was to support J in getting across to the medical team that she did not wish to have chemotherapy.
After each hospital visit we went for a drink at the hospital café, which gave J an opportunity to talk about the consultation and any concerns she had.
On one occasion we visited the Maggie’s centre where we spoke to the volunteer staff and received information about Attendance Allowance from the Benefits Advisor.
I visited J at home several times to go through the information that she had been given regarding surgery and treatment options and to help her complete the benefit forms. I supported J at her preoperative assessment and at her consultation after her keyhole hysterectomy. I supported J in discussing her wishes at her appointment with the oncologist. By the second visit to the oncologist the results of the CT scan were known which indicated that there had been further spread, and the plan was for four sessions of palliative radiotherapy. The specialist nurse spoke to J about the support available from the local hospice. However J was very upset as she felt that hospice intervention meant that she was dying. She continued to deteriorate and she asked me to attend for moral support when the specialist nurse from the hospice visited her at home. This meeting went very well and the specialist nurse was able to give J advice on diet and pain management.
I went with J for her first two radiotherapy sessions. She telephoned me at the weekend after the first radiotherapy session, extremely distressed and weak saying that she was unable to eat or drink or walk. I visited her at home 40 miles away and supported her to get something to eat and drink and encourage her to take her analgesia.
J never did have any more radiotherapy. I went away and on my return I contacted her and she sounded very frail . I went to visit the following day but when I arrived a neighbour informed me that J had fallen that morning and had been taken into the local A&E department. I visited her there where she was in a lot of pain, frail but cheerful and glad to see me. However over the next week or so her condition deteriorated and I visited her in one of the inpatient wards at the local hospital (she was too unwell to be transferred to the hospice). Unfortunately J had had a stroke and was unresponsive, she looked very comfortable lying in bed with radio 3 playing in the background (J was a lover of classical music and a pianist) and I was still reminded of Meryl Streep. She sadly died the following day.
I was so glad to have met J as part of the Cancer Older People and Advocacy project and to be able to help her through her cancer experience. As she had no friends and family nearby I was able to offer her support, and help her navigate her way through the system and help her ask those often difficult questions and understand the response. I was a shoulder to cry on, someone to give her a hug when she needed it, an arm to guide her through the hospital corridors and in the end someone to push her in a wheelchair to her last radiotherapy appointment. My involvement with J was a real privilege and J was extremely complimentary about the assistance the Cancer Older People and Advocacy project had offered her.
Susan Mackie, Volunteer Advocate, Oxfordshire Advocacy