A safe place to share wor­ries and fears with oth­ers struck by the dis­ease:

Can­cer sup­port cen­tres of­fer a safe place to share wor­ries and fears, while meet­ing oth­ers in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sylvia Thomp­son

Be­ing di­ag­nosed with can­cer can be the big­gest shock of your life and cop­ing with treat­ment and re­cov­ery is of­ten a lonely jour­ney – even if you are sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends.

For these rea­sons, can­cer sup­port cen­tres of­ten be­come a safe place to share your wor­ries and fears, while meet­ing other peo­ple go­ing through sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

The Hope Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre in En­nis­cor­thy, Co Wex­ford, is one such place. Sit­u­ated in a town house at on Up­per Weafer St, the cen­tre was opened in 2007. It is a warm, wel­com­ing and com­fort­able place that of­fers peo­ple with can­cer and their care givers free coun­selling, fa­cil­i­tated group ses­sions and var­i­ous ther­a­pies on week days from 9am-4pm. About 250 peo­ple avail of its ser­vices each year.

“Pick­ing up the phone or walk­ing in the door is of­ten the hard­est step for peo­ple,” says Sharon Groarke, sup­port nurse at the Hope Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre. “Peo­ple are of­ten taken aback that it’s not a clin­i­cal set­ting. What we pro­vide here is very sim­ple – it’s a calm, safe space to talk about your wor­ries and feel­ings about your di­ag­no­sis or treat­ment. Of­ten peo­ple with can­cer put on a brave face and say they are fine but they’re not.”

Be­fore they join any group ses­sions or go for coun­selling or ther­a­pies, clients at the cen­tre first meet with one of the three can­cer sup­port nurses. “They have a cup of tea and share their story. Some peo­ple come just af­ter they have got news of their can­cer di­ag­no­sis, oth­ers come when they are go­ing through their treat­ment or im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards and then, oth­ers come fur­ther down the line when they ‘face a brick wall’ and re­alise that they haven’t dealt with it,” says Groarke.

The Hope Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre op­er­ates on a self-re­fer­ral ba­sis and fol­low­ing assess­ment with the sup­port nurse, peo­ple come and go for ther­a­pies and drop-in ses­sions as they choose. Peo­ple re­alise life doesn’t go back to nor­mal af­ter can­cer but in­stead that they have to find a “new nor­mal”, ac­cord­ing to Groarke. “There is of­ten the ex­pec­ta­tion from fam­ily that the per­son will be back to nor­mal af­ter the treat­ment is fin­ished, but it’s not like that.”

Mary Mur­phy was di­ag­nosed with bowel can­cer in 2013 and had treat­ment from De­cem­ber 2013 un­til June 2014. “Half way through my treat­ment, some­one men­tioned the Hope Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre to me but it still took me a while to come to the door,” she ex­plains. Look­ing back, she feels hugely grate­ful for the sup­port she re­ceived. “When I came here, it was like they knew me all their lives. I made so many friends and had coun­selling and re­lax­ation ses­sions, re­flex­ol­ogy and mas­sage,” she tells The Ir­ish Times as we sit in the com­fort­able sit­ting room at the front of the cen­tre.

Treat­ment

How­ever, as some peo­ple find, it was when her treat­ment fin­ished Mur­phy re­lied on the cen­tre most of all. “When you are in treat­ment, you have a lot of sup­port from fam­ily and on­col­ogy nurses who give you ther­apy as well as chemo. My grown-up chil­dren were al­ways there for me but some­times, you don’t want to off­load on them. There is a feel­ing of iso­la­tion af­ter treat­ment and this place was my sav­ing grace dur­ing that time.”

Mur­phy lost her mother to lung can­cer and her brother died of bowel can­cer while she was re­ceiv­ing her own can­cer treat­ment. As well as her ther­apy ses­sions, she at­tended the monthly women’s only sup­port groups at the Hope Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre. “We sat around and talked but you didn’t have to talk if you didn’t want to. Al­most all of us cried at some stage.”

She also joined the walk­ing group. “I hadn’t walked for so long be­cause I felt I wasn’t able to walk. But, in the walk­ing group, I got stronger week by week and even got a lit­tle bit com­pet­i­tive,” she says with a smile. The can­cer sup­port nurses pro­vide reg­u­lar as­sess­ments and en­cour­age­ment for the walk­ing group, which is part of the Ir­ish Can­cer So­ci­ety Strides for Life 15-week struc­tured “get fit af­ter can­cer” pro­gramme.

Dif­fer­ent per­son

Mur­phy says she is a dif­fer­ent per­son now fol­low­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence of can­cer. “It does change you. I’ve a bet­ter per­spec­tive on how to live my life. You can’t change the past but you can en­joy your life now as best you can,” she says.

On my visit to the cen­tre, a group of care­givers agree to me sit­ting in on their ses­sion with sup­port nurse Bernie Kir­wan. Mar­garet Jor­dan comes to this group for sup­port as her hus­band, Matthew, is re­ceiv­ing treat­ment for chronic leukaemia. Her son, Stephen, died of acute leukaemia in Novem­ber 2013. “I get great strength from com­ing here. Stephen’s death was a huge loss to us. It’s some­thing you never get over but you learn to live around it,” she says.

Mary Ar­ri­gan also comes to the care­givers group to help her sup­port her hus­band who has acute myeloid leukaemia. “I came to my first meet­ing in De­cem­ber 2016. We all told our sto­ries and cried. Peo­ple put their arms around each other. I didn’t know any­one but re­alised that what goes on here, stays here. I also go to med­i­ta­tion and re­flex­ol­ogy ses­sions.”

Can­cer sup­port nurse Kir­wan says com­ing to fa­cil­i­tated groups lessens peo­ple’s iso­la­tion. “The hard­est thing about can­cer is the lone­li­ness, even when loads of peo­ple are around you. It’s your jour­ney but there is a com­mon bond be­tween peo­ple here.” While some of the group are sup­port­ing a spouse with can­cer, oth­ers have sis­ters or daugh­ters with can­cer. The cen­tre also of­fers coun­selling to teenagers and runs the Climb [Chil­dren’s Lives In­clude Mo­ments of Brav­ery] pro­gramme for chil­dren who have a fam­ily mem­ber with can­cer.

Jor­dan says some­times it’s hard to ad­mit you need help as the care­giver. “I was a nurse and in charge of other peo­ple but when I come here, it’s a re­lease.” Kir­wan says the “most an­noy­ing thing is telling peo­ple to be pos­i­tive. Peo­ple of­ten say it’s best to put a smile on and not let down your guard but for me, it’s good to have a good cry and look for sup­port.”

Can­cer sup­port nurse Cather­ine Wal­lace says the re­laxed, non-clin­i­cal at­mos­phere of can­cer sup­port cen­tres is key. “Hos­pi­tals are very busy places where peo­ple go for di­ag­no­sis, treat­ment and learn how to deal with side ef­fects. There is rarely time to deal with the emo­tional im­pact of the ill­ness,” she says. The Hope Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre doesn’t of­fer any med­i­cal ad­vice and only of­fers ther­a­pies, rec­om­mended for peo­ple with can­cer. “We al­low peo­ple to talk things through so that they might go back to their con­sul­tants with a few dif­fer­ent ques­tions,” says Wal­lace.

“Of­ten when peo­ple are fin­ished the roller­coaster of treat­ment, they feel like the safety net is taken away and this can be quite a dif­fi­cult time for them. Peo­ple can join the drop-in groups af­ter the ini­tial assess­ment by a can­cer sup­port nurse and come and go as they like. We re­spond to the needs of our clients and it works holis­ti­cally. It’s a priv­i­lege to be with peo­ple, share what’s go­ing on and walk part of their jour­ney with them.”

What we pro­vide here is very sim­ple – it’s a calm, safe space to talk about your wor­ries and feel­ings about your di­ag­no­sis or treat­ment

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