The Cancer Story is Changing – Why I’m grateful to be a part of it and the power of people!

In March 2018 I took on the role of managing a new Tees Valley project at Catalyst called ‘Living With and Beyond Cancer’ when I immediately realised I would have some serious learning to do – what with having (very) little experience working in NHS health/cancer services. Fortunately, I also have limited personal experience of the whirlwind impact a cancer diagnosis can have on a person and those close to them. Although there have been incidents of the disease in my family – they were either before my time, or I was too distant, too young (and frankly, innocent!) to understand what it all meant.

A lesson which I have since learned (to some extent) by speaking to and working with some of the most admirable, brave and inspirational people imaginable over the past nine months. Hastily booking myself onto two Macmillan training courses was also very helpful. I am ever-conscious of being insensitive, or saying the wrong thing and am simply glad of the opportunity to make a difference in any small way I can. Which is, to help cancer patients have better and earlier access to the things that help them live well; gain more advice/information on what changes to expect and the support that is out there; and also improve the support given to those around them too – such as carers, partners, children, siblings, parents or friends.

So when I say the ‘Cancer Story is Changing’… that is because there are now 2.5 million people living with cancer in the UK due to better research and treatments. This is a vast improvement on previous years and means we have a new challenge – to support the increasing numbers of those ‘Living With & Beyond Cancer’ achieve what matters to them and adopt a ‘new normal’ life. I hear the term ‘New Normal’ a lot and find it a stark concept – cancer is undoubtedly life-changing. There is of course a fairly aggressive elephant in the room that comes with all this, in that crucially – not everyone survives a cancer diagnosis. Something which I am constantly aware of and remain careful not to cause more upset than is already granted to those who witness this in first person. Again, I am blown away by people who use these experiences to give back, help others and keep fighting.

Among these people, are Cancer Nurse Specialists and Macmillan Information Centre staff/volunteers who do a truly remarkable job, going above and beyond to soothe people’s physical, emotional and practical concerns. Sadly, they are a limited resource but there are also countless other wonderful groups and projects out there that can help to pick up the slack. Everything from social/peer groups to luncheon clubs, activity/walking groups, crafts groups, welfare advisors, mental health support, holistic therapies, leisure facilities… the list goes on. And these don’t have to be ‘cancer specific’, not all the time at least. Anything that helps people get through the day is a bonus.

My seven years of working/volunteering in the voluntary and community sector means I am, and always will be a strong advocate of people power. And so having the opportunity to bring together health professionals, patients, volunteers, charities, community groups and ultimately, people – to rally round an extremely worthwhile cause has been a total privilege. I’ve worked with partners across Tees Valley to help implement something called the Macmillan ‘Recovery Package’ – by co-ordinating five large ‘Information Events (and some smaller ones too!); chairing Tees Valley partner meetings to share ideas and try new ways of working; distributing newsletters; providing training and networking opportunities; raising awareness of community services; sharing advice and information resources; building capacity through volunteering and giving cancer patients a voice. Because their cancer is unique, much like the person. Because they know what is important to them. And because they deserve to know what can make things a little bit easier – more consistently and as early as possible. I genuinely believe that this approach – working together – can improve things.

Unexpectedly throughout all this, my musical world and professional world collided when I whimsically suggested in a meeting that live music might be a nice addition to the Information Events – to which a colleague kindly offered my services… and my other colleagues kindly accepted. I couldn’t say no… even if I wanted to!

After performing some carefully selected tunes (lyrics are important!) at these events, I can honestly say I learned that the gift of encouraging others to dance, or sing, smile or laugh even – if only for a few minutes, can offer a shred of light in otherwise dark times (so to speak!) And also give me a strange feeling that is not easily described, nor easily forgotten.

To be honest, I’ve never worked on a project of this scale… and my dodgy 2004 Ford Focus has also never took such a beating… neither have I ever relied so heavily on Google Maps (not always successfully!) Working closely with three Foundation Trusts, up to 50 organisations and more sparsely with hundreds of people across the North of England has been a journey and a half. We’ve got a ways to go – but it feels like collectively, we’re heading in the same direction at least.

I am beyond grateful to everyone who has dared to share their personal stories, feelings and ideas with me so far. Above all else, I’ve been given an incredible sense of humility and perspective. This year has been a tremendous learning curve which was equally eye-opening, challenging and rewarding – but even if we make a big difference to a few families, it will all feel worth the time and effort from a bunch of people who just want to help those less fortunate. Because we can.

So, what are we hoping to achieve after all this?

Well, Macmillan Cancer Support have a motto that says ‘No one should face cancer alone’ – with which I completely agree… and I like to think we’re maybe a little bit closer to making that a reality.

Written by Nathan Duff, Catalyst Health & Wellbeing Project Officer

We’d like to thank Northern Cancer Alliance, Macmillan Cancer Support, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust and NHS Hartlepool, Stockton Clinical Commissioning Group and our other partners for their continued support.