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
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.
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.
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