Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer


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It’s a lottery, even in the same postcode!

Today, with kind permission, we reproduce a post written by Chris Lewis a good friend of our Cancer, Older People and Advocacy work and first published on his own blog recently:

 

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The work that I do in cancer support has changed dramatically over the years, and I have had to adjust with the increase of demand on my time. My speaking engagements and charity take a bulk of my time now, with writing filling any gaps. But one thing I was determined to continue with is my monthly prostate group facilitation, which I have been doing now for 8 years. This is done at my local cancer centre and we have a group of approximately 30, with new members every month. We have professionals from the local community as guest speakers and everyone shares their experiences to try and improve the offer for patients coming into the system now.Our members come from a very local area and in general visit the same few GPs and mainly three hospitals for their treatment.

But what continually shocks me is the mixed messages being brought back to the group. There is a huge amount of experience amongst our members which is why the group is busy. Most have learned to be proactive with their own care because they have to be! post code lottery 3 The guys are a great cross section of prostate treatment with some starting, and others dealing with the side effects of their treatment. This particular cancer has many different options of treatment with different outcomes of course. All have different side effects, and for most people, making a choice is one of the most difficult things they will have to do.

Of course, everyone is affected differently, even when two people have the same disease and treatment which we all know. Treatment is changing rapidly now and even in my time of working with the group, surgery is now being done by robotics, and radiotherapy has become much better targeted to leave less peripheral nerve damage. This is progress of course, along with the more tolerated drugs etc, but why am I not shouting from the roof tops? Simply because our communication is still as poor as ever. With this particular cancer, the treatment decisions can be complex, but it is after treatment where the complications can really begin. Some of the basics of life for men, being embarrassingly difficult. Unable to control accurately when you need to go to the toilet, and wearing nappies, in case of accidents. Erectile dysfunction being also very common for many, after treatment. Having to take hormone therapy for several years, changing your physical appearance, getting regular hot sweats and growing breasts. You can’t begin to imagine those sort of changes can you?

However there are many things around now that can improve life after prostate cancer, but it certainly is a lottery whether you are told about them or not! Many of them are available on the N.H.S, but it seems very few are actually informed what is available. A quick example would be the pads that men wear. People spend a lot in supermarkets buying their own but apparently there is service that delivers them free of charge. Some people know about it and others don’t. The same applies for problem with erectile dysfunction. Tablets, machines, pumps and under the skin valves are all available, but so many people are just not aware much of this exists. It is so strange listening to the group sharing their own experiences. Many looking on in amazement as one mentions a service that nobody else was aware of. Why is this still happening in this day and age?

My initial thought was cost, as that is always one of the first things mentioned, but maybe that is the cynic in me?Post code lottery 1 How can it be that people living in the same area attending few hospitals get very contrasting information? Not being told some of the key elements of what might actually improve their physical and emotional wellbeing. This really shows why it is important for patients to talk to each other and the value of support groups whether online or physical. I have always been proactive with my own treatment and encourage others to be the same. But let’s be honest at the time you are feeling most vulnerable it can be difficult to be ‘pushy.’

We are doing some wonderful things now for people affected by prostate cancer, but what I have learned is that like with most other cancers, it’s the psychological and emotional issues that follow, is where the biggest problems are.Why oh why is it still so ‘hit and miss’ that people get the treatment they require? Whether you have a particular urological nurse or not? If you see a certain Consultant or you don’t?

Communication is still the major obstacle to helping these people. Despite the Internet, and information from many different charities and the health service, it is just not being delivered in the right way. Leaving people to their own devices after they have had traumatic treatment will not help them with their quality of life. Surely after they have been treated, they deserve the best opportunity of returning to as normal a life as can be achieved? It is no longer good enough to think the job has been completed once you leave the hospital. The after effects of many of these treatments can continue for years after, and sometimes for life. We must do more to ensure that each case is looked at individually, how that person lived their life before and what ambitions they may have for after.

In my opinion we must make every effort to improve the quality of life after treatment for people affected by cancer. Not having the services available is one thing but for them to exist and people who need them not to know about them is a disgrace. My experience has shown me that there are still too many ‘cooks’ without real effective collaboration. It can no longer be a matter of luck whether we find what we need!!

This video will help explain some of the issues that people can face.

As always I have share my thoughts and experiences above, and please feel free to share your below. It’s your help that gives me the information I need to ensure positive change can happen.

Chris Lewis: Twitter @christheeagle1 


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Driver, moral support or something more?

Kathleen Gillett from Dorset Macmillan Advocacy looks at what an advocate can and will do to support an older person affected by cancer:

When I explained to someone recently that peer volunteer advocates could accompany the person they are supporting to medical appointments they remarked ‘Like a befriender then?’ ‘Yes and no’, I replied.

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The advocate, in addition to walking in the door with the patient (and carer) can do any or all of the following:

  • Ensure the person has remembered the appointment, has satisfactory transport arrangements and knows exactly where to go
  • Ensure the person knows what the appointment is for and who they are going to see
  • Ensure the person has thought about the previous appointment and prepared for this one by thinking about what they would like to get out of it and writing down any questions they would like to ask
  • Prompt the person to ask questions they have prepared and, if needed, ask the questions on the patient’s behalf
  • Monitor the person’s understanding of any terminology used and ask them if they would like fuller explanations
  • If the person is asked to make a decision about treatment options check whether they feel ready to do so and if not how much time is available
  • Take notes during the appointment to make a written record for the person to refer back to later
  • Make sure the person is clear at the end of the appointment what the next step will be
  • Have a cup of tea while waiting for transport home
  • Later on run through what happened at the appointment to see how the person feels it went, whether they felt comfortable and were treated with dignity and respect
  • Discuss any treatment and care options and their implications and whether more clinical information is needed
  • Agree with the person if any new and immediate needs have arisen and what they would like to do next.

I was reminded of reading Ken Worpole’s obituary of the hospice architect, Ian Clarke. Clarke ‘believed passionately that hospitals for the dying should be welcoming, reassuring places and he spent his career designing uplifting spaces for palliative care’.  Clarke wrote of healthcare environments; ‘Why can we not get away from the ubiquitous ‘no-place’ hospital corridors that we are so used to?’

 

I agree that environment is important and have visited well designed hospices and cancer centres that clearly enhance wellbeing. However, for me when I go for the first time to a new place or have an appointment of significance in a familiar place, feeling well prepared and having a trusted person to go with me is equally important. This, coupled with the friendliness and manner of the staff that I meet there, will make a bigger impact on me than the surroundings in isolation.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy


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‘Health literacy’ and ‘Patient activation’

Kathleen Gillett from programme partner Dorset Macmillan Advocacy writes in the first of two posts about how our peer advocates can support older people affected by cancer achieve voice, choice and control in their cancer journey:

I recently read the terms ‘health literacy’ and ‘patient activation’ in a report by Macmillan Cancer Support and found them useful labels for ideas that had been floating about in my head. 

Let’s talk about it: Improving information and support describes the role of health literacy and patient activation in a chapter on Improved Communication.

‘Poor reading and comprehension skills are not always taken into account when providing accessible information and support, with serious implications for health inequalities and outcomes. While the problem of functional literacy remains a huge challenge, it is possible to be fully literate and yet health illiterate. Health literacy concerns the ability to read, understand and act on health information, as well as navigate the health and social care system.’

Practically, low health literacy can impact on patients in a number of ways. These include their ability to follow treatment plans, seek support, participate in consultations, understand performance data, understand the implications of provided information, and communicate their own values and needs. Individuals vary in their level of patient activation – the measure of a person’s skills, confidence and knowledge to manage their own health.’

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It helps me to relate theory to practice and I thought of two people that we supported in the early days of Dorset Macmillan Advocacy.

The first advocacy partner described herself as having been ‘a poor scholar’. She disliked written information and kept hospital paperwork out of sight. You could say her level of general literacy was low.  Her health literacy or her ability to understand her condition, her treatment plan and its implications risked being affected by her general literacy.  She knew that verbal processing of information through discussion worked much better for her.  She had been able to ask a health professional for a translation into plain English ‘Does that mean…?’  With her advocate she was able to discuss her condition and the implication of treatment options at several key stages of her journey. She said that having an advocate also boosted her confidence.

The second advocacy partner sought to increase his level of health literacy. He undertook extensive internet research into his condition and travelled to see a specialist.  He also had a very strong level of patient activation.  In other words he was strongly motivated to be actively involved in clinical treatment decisions and make lifestyle changes that he judged to be beneficial to his situation.  However his responsibilities as a carer presented a physical barrier that also put him under huge emotional strain.  His advocate worked with him to put arrangements in place that permitted him to move forward with his own treatment.

The two people described had different cancers, different personal circumstances and different personalities but both benefited from advocacy support which is always tailored to each individual’s needs and situation.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy


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Coping with more than cancer

In today’s blog post Kathleen Gillett from Dorset Macmillan Advocacy looks at the issues facing older people affected by other long term conditions as well as cancer:

Coping with cancer is one thing, coping with cancer and one or more other long term condition is another. Peer advocates listen to the people they support to discover what matters most to them and may be surprised to find that having cancer can be the least of their worries.

At Dorset Macmillan Advocacy we have collected some information on the long term conditions and health problems that the people we are supporting are living with.  We have found that of 110 people referred to us for support in 2015 50 have at least one other long term condition, 26 have two conditions including drug and alcohol dependency issues and 7 have 3 conditions.  The conditions include sensory loss, diabetes, heart condition, memory problems, arthritis, MS, ME, epilepsy, hiatus hernia and mental health issues. Not everyone wants to disclose all their health issues and we have not in every case methodically recorded where this information has been given so I think it is safe to say that there are likely to be more issues than we actually know of.

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In fact 70% of people with cancer have one or more additional long term condition according to research carried out by Macmillan Cancer Support.  It’s clear that the situation for people with limited social support networks, such as older people, can be very difficult.  Independent advocacy services such as ours can be flexible and support people with their concerns when they are wider and more complex than the cancer diagnosis.

Health professionals are aware of the implications especially as regards treatment options for older people.  The British Geriatric Society has a special interest group (SIG) for Oncology which met for the first time last September and Kath Parson of OPAAL gave a presentation about the Cancer, Older People and Advocacy programme.  In a write-up of that event Dr Lucy Dumas said ‘Older patients with multiple medical co-morbidities and/or issues with care or coping at home represent a significant challenge when it comes to evaluating whether or not they will be able to tolerate potentially toxic therapies’.

Over the next year we hope to gather more information about the wider health issues of the people that we support. As well as asking for their feedback on the difference our service has made we may be able to gather their views on how their other conditions have impacted on their cancer patient experience.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy


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Talking about cancer: The Advocacy and Cancer Study

In this post, Patty Doran, a PhD researcher from the University of Manchester, talks about the Advocacy and Cancer study she has completed with support from Cancer Older People and Advocacy partners.

The Advocacy and Cancer Study aimed to gain personal perspectives from older cancer patients and their carers about whether they feel that they were involved in treatment decisions with their medical staff, and to explore if access to social support, provided by both family and independent advocates, impacts on the experiences of older cancer patients.  The study was completed with support and collaboration from Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer, Older People and Advocacy delivery partners.  I carried out a set of interviews as part of the research and now have the perspectives of 11 people, both patients and carers, on the impact of social support and advocacy on their experience of cancer.  It was a privilege to be able to talk to people, from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, about their experiences.

From my interviews, I heard from older cancer patients about the isolation that cancer can bring.  One older man told me that ‘there is nowhere that anybody has pointed me or my wife to where we can get support with me having cancer, or even for my wife just to get her own support’.  In another interview with an older women who lives on her own, I was told ‘you do tend to live in a world of your own, and there’s no one there to sort of know how you really feel’.  This obviously shouldn’t be the case.  Awareness raising and education is key to bringing about a social change in the way people view and experience cancer.  Through the process of research, evidence gathering, policy development and service change can we improve the lives of people living with cancer.

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Patty Doran

In early November I presented a poster about my Advocacy and Cancer Study at the Methods@Manchester Methods Fair.  My poster included links to some of the initial themes that have been identified through my study.  One of the most interesting findings is the lack of perceived treatment options that the older people are experiencing.  One older woman told me ‘even until today I still do not know if there were any other [treatment] options’.  This perception has been echoed by professional staff I have spoken to in the course of my research, both hospital based staff and professionals based in advocacy services.  There is a (justified) sense that cancer services in the UK are delivered to a high standard, and that all patients are offered the best possible treatment.  However, if this is the case, why are older people not getting the same levels of treatment as younger people?  We know that the difference isn’t explained just by health issues, so there must be something else.

I believe that social support has an important role to play in the journey of the older cancer patient.  As one of my interview participants said, ‘[my advocate] who was coming with me, she came with me regularly to chemo and it was brilliant … she was so much company, you know, and she put me on the taxi then to bring me home and she’s brilliant, helped an awful lot’.  Another participant said that they needed ‘somebody that I can talk to that can point me in the right direction, which is when the advocate comes I can say what I want to.  I mean he can tell me which way to go – I’m not sure which way to go’.

World Cancer Day, every year on the 4th February, is about awareness and education.  I am a long-standing advocate of talking about cancer and believe that the more people learn about cancer the higher the likelihood of early diagnosis and better treatment outcomes.  Also, education about the social support needs of people living with cancer will bring about service improvement and better experiences for patients, their families and carers.  I still have many questions about social support, older people and cancer.  As yet, it may not be clear what the answers are to all my questions, however my research efforts are beginning to produce results.

It may be that for now my results will just stimulate more questions, however I am hopeful that I am slowly working my way to producing my own story of new knowledge and understanding.  I am grateful to all the participants who spoke to me, and to the staff from the advocacy services that made it possible.  My final participant quote, I believe, sums up perfectly the need to talk more about cancer.

‘I don’t believe in hiding cancer because the more people talk about it the more things may get done … To get it out in the open so people are not scared about it, and then they will turn round and say, oh, I didn’t know you could do this and do that. So the more people are proactive then hopefully something will be done about it.’

Patty Doran


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Aneesah’s tale

On World Cancer Day Aneesah, a professional advocate from ICANN (Independent Community Advocacy Network North), gives us her take on delivering older people’s cancer advocacy:

My experience as working as an advocate on the Cancer, Older People and Advocacy project has varied vastly. Through my work I have found that one of the greatest obstacles both with professionals working in the cancer field and the clients themselves, was initially actually understanding what “advocacy” is. Although in general terms most clients and professionals alike understand that an advocate can effectively aid in putting across opinions, in many other respects I found that lines can be frequently blurred.

The ICANN team with Aneesah on the left

It can sometimes be unclear as to what an advocate can and cannot do. An example of this occurred when I was attending an appointment with a client and they were given various treatment options, which they appeared to be confused about. Once I relayed the information to the client put forward from the consultant, the client then felt that it was I as the advocate that needed to make the best decision on her behalf! I had to encourage and empower her, to explore the options by using me as a sounding board, and then to talk through together what she wanted to do.

These situations can as an advocate be challenging but upon reflection I also now acknowledge that it is important as an advocate to be able to voice concerns to medical professionals. With the same client at a subsequent appointment, when it was obvious to me that she was not taking it what was being said, I asked if we could take a break and this gave me the opportunity to fully discuss in depth the pro and cons of the various treatments that she was being offered.

This ensured that the client was able to make a clearer conscious choice and in turn made them feel more at ease as they became more fully aware of what to expect. It also meant that at future appointments we were able to prepare in advance, questions she wanted to ask and things we needed to discuss, which in turn gave her more confidence about being in control of her cancer journey.

Similarly as an advocate I found that on some occasions health professionals viewed my presence when attending with clients with some suspicion. This can sometimes be intimidating for the professionals involved as I have been under the impression that maybe they felt that I was there to act as an independent witness to ascertain any faults or failure of medical procedures on their part. However, once they become familiar with me and how advocacy can facilitate the client in a positive way they too began to see the benefits of having an advocacy service for their patients . The most prominent example being that many of the medical professionals involved in cancer treatment do not physically have the time or capacity to thoroughly go through the finer details with all their patients. With advocacy support they then have returning patients who are more confident and comfortable, and less likely to miss medical appointments, as they are more aware of what tests or procedures they are attending for, what future plans are, and what to expect from their patient experience.

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Many clients are understandably confused or feel disorientated particularly when it has not been long since they have been diagnosed. They are also given a considerable amount of information which initially may be difficult to not only understand but also to accept. Being an advocate has given me the opportunity to facilitate people in focusing what they would actually like to do regarding treatment or finding out about other services that would improve their quality of life.

As an advocate I have realised that it is often easy to concentrate only on the client who has been diagnosed with cancer. I have realised that cancer can have an equally profound and devastating effect not just on the patient but the family and friends around them also, and have seen first-hand the value of support to carers

More recently I have had a client that has been diagnosed with cancer three times in the last ten years. Although she herself was going through emotional turmoil it was equally difficult for her partner to come to terms with a situation that had been ongoing for such a long length of time. In this situation advocacy was required by both. They each needed someone to listen to them as they went through the same journey encountering different emotions from two perspectives.

I would consider that my role as an advocate has been beneficial, particularly to those who are vulnerable and most isolated. I have also become aware though that even those clients who are fortunate to have an extended network of family and friends can still feel alone in their personal journey. I have come across situations where clients have felt more at ease in voicing their anxieties to me as I am someone who is independent and non- judgemental. Often people feel that there are things they cannot discuss with those closest to them due to fear, awkwardness, embarrassment, and sometimes pressure to feel positive and optimistic when they are actually not feeling these things. One of the benefits of advocacy to the client is to offload and explore these concerns.

Aneesah Bana, Advocate, ICANN


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Susan tells J’s story

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.

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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.

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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.

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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