Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer


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Recognising volunteers as part of the cancer care team

Research and technological advances mean that new cancer treatments are continually coming on stream. This is good to know given that the number of people living with a cancer diagnosis in the UK is set to double from more than 2 million in 2010 to 4 million by 2030. But what about the people who actually help those affected by cancer, doctors and nurses for example. How is the cancer workforce keeping up with change and preparing for the future?

In February of this year Thinking Differently Macmillan’s vision for the future cancer workforce in England was published. In the Foreword Dr Fran Woodard, Executive Director of Policy and Impact, states: ‘We believe that the workforce needs to be equipped with the capacity, confidence and skills to identify and address holistic needs, to tailor follow-up care and support people to self-manage.’

The current challenges facing the cancer workforce include:

  • rising demand for services and increasing complexity – e.g. people living with multiple long term conditions
  • poor coordination and communication leading to lack of support for recovery

Macmillan calls on Health Education England and the NHS at national, regional and local level to work strategically to ensure people living with cancer experience well-coordinated continuity of care: ‘Our vision is for a workforce that can deliver holistic, patient-centred care and support. It is based on understanding the needs of people living with cancer and the access they need to other services that will contribute to their care.’

The report explains that ‘Delivering truly patient-centred care means ensuring that people are supported before, during and after treatment… Without the right workforce in place, they … may not have the support they need to optimise their quality of life after treatment. They may not always know who to contact for support nor how best to do so. We know they do not always have enough time to talk through all their concerns or be supported with non-clinical issues, such as financial support.’

Macmillan recognises that ‘Volunteers and people affected by cancer, including carers, also have an important part to play in the cancer care team’. My personal view is that highly trained professionals can fail to see the full potential of volunteers.  Peer volunteer advocates are entirely patient or person-centred in their approach as the very nature of advocacy demands that it is led by the service user or advocacy partner as we prefer to call them.   Volunteer advocates specialise in finding things out, sourcing additional support and facilitating ways to access that support. Volunteer advocates have time to listen and to build a trusting relationship.  Volunteer advocates will not offer clinical support but they will help to ensure people can understand information that they are given and feel ready to make informed choices about treatment and care as well as exploring practical and financial support needs.

The report goes on to say ‘Encouraging retention of staff will also be hugely important, as will looking at the potential of retired professionals as volunteers.’ In Dorset we have proven that staff who reach retirement age can be retained in the workforce by the offer of challenging and rewarding volunteer roles such as providing independent advocacy support. Time our Gift to You includes the stories of several former health professionals. Mike Goodman, retired Clinical Nurse Specialist from Dorset Macmillan Advocacy rightly observes: ‘After many years as a health professional you do build up a wealth of expertise and numerous medical contacts which it seems a waste to suddenly abandon just because you retire.’

The Macmillan report recommends next steps and advises that ‘Solutions will be unique to each local context and will require the input of a variety of local stakeholders, including Cancer Alliances, Sustainability & Transformation Plans and local NHS providers.’  We are trying to help colleagues in statutory services in Dorset to understand what trained peer volunteer advocates can do and how they are contributing to the skill mix of the cancer care workforce for the benefit of people affected by cancer locally.

Kathleen Gillett, Macmillan Project Coordinator, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy, Help & Care


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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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Time: our gift to you

We’re absolutely delighted today to be launching our new book of volunteer stories from the Cancer, Older People and Advocacy Programme. Telling 19 different stories of peer advocates and cancer champions, it’s called “Time: our gift to you”.

lo-res-cover-time-our-gift-to-you

We’ve spent lots of time on this blog telling you about the difference our volunteers make to the older people affected by cancer they support. We thought it was about time we gave those volunteers an opportunity to tell their own stories.

Prior to developing this new publication our peer volunteers told us some of the reasons they’ve chosen to become involved:

“It makes a real difference to those we support. It ticks lots of boxes for me, I wanted to continue to use skill, experience & knowledge to help others, to make a positive difference to people’s lives.”

“I want to help people affected by cancer, and am happy to help people through the ‘cancer experience’. For me it’s all about putting something back, I was well cared for and I’m aware that a lot of other people are not so fortunate.”

“Because I believe I can make a real difference, I can help people practically & personally. I have a good idea of what people are going through. I can help them with their concerns or fears for the future. I enjoy being part of a team, and I enjoy the training offered to us all.”

“I feel I can relate to my advocacy partner very well due to my own experiences. I find it useful to have something in common with my partner in addition to the cancer. I am an empathetic person, a good listener and able to support others to express their concerns and worries.”

In addition to making a difference for others, Cancer, Older People and Advocacy volunteers also tell us they themselves benefit from their volunteering role.

You can read and download all 19 stories and find out why cancer advocacy volunteering is making such a difference by clicking here

Marie McWilliams, OPAAL