A leading oncology nurse in the North East spoke about what inspired her to help others and the realities of working in cancer care after the pandemic.
Ashleigh McDonald is SACT (Systemic Anti-Cancer Therapy) head nurse at Rutherford Cancer Center in Bedlington, Northumberland – part of a UK network of specialist centers treating both private and NHS patients.
Since Covid, Rutherford has seen a 200% increase in the number of patients receiving SACT, which describes all types of drugs used in chemotherapy treatment at its centers.
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According to Ashleigh, the past two years have brought challenges for all nurses – but behind the scenes she and her team have continued to treat vulnerable patients amid the wider pressure on the UK’s health service.
After experiencing first-hand what it’s like to lose a family member to illness when she was just 19, to mark International Nurses Day, she shared the realities of to be an oncology nurse today.
The 42-year-old from Whitley Bay said she started becoming a nurse aged 24 – inspired to work with cancer patients by the death of her mother Margaret Winder, who had lost a battle with cancer five years ago.
She said: “I have been an oncology nurse for over 18 years now and joined the Rutherford team three years ago. I lost my mother to colon cancer when I was 19, which certainly fueled my passion for this area of medicine and inspires me every day to be the best nurse I can be.
“She was the most amazing mom to me and my two brothers who always encouraged and supported us in everything we did.”
She added: “It’s an area of nursing where you have to provide a lot of support – every patient has a different experience and goes through their own personal journey, and it’s my job to make sure it’s as comfortable as possible. possible. possible for them.”
As the center’s senior nurse, Ashleigh is responsible for managing patients and staff, working closely with consultants, managing referrals, booking pre-assessments and educating patients about side effects. of their treatment options.
Alongside her team, she also offers a 24-hour helpline for patients.
“Although it’s a management role, I still enjoy attending patient clinics – having patient contact is really important to me,” she added.
“At Rutherford we are able to offer a truly bespoke cancer service to our patients, and as this is a private center (which also treats NHS patients) we are able to spend more time with each patient, which can make such a difference to someone in treatment.
“There are very difficult times when it comes to treating cancer patients – many of them are just starting to come to terms with the reality that they have cancer – so as a nurse I find it is a privilege to be able to support them during this time. Often we find that we also need to support the families of our patients.
“It’s important that we do what we can to build the strongest support network for the patient.
“At the height of the pandemic, patients could not bring a friend or family member to any of their appointments. On top of that, we obviously had very strict protocols for social distancing and PPE, which made what is already a very isolating experience even more difficult.
“As a nurse, your intuition is to comfort your patient, and working under these conditions made it incredibly difficult. We found that we had to do a lot of follow-up phone consultations because we were relying on that extra pair of ears.
“As a patient goes through a diagnosis or treatment, it can be difficult for them to retain all the information or ask the right questions.
“On top of that there was confusion over the ever-changing rules and general anxiety about Covid and how it might affect them. Two years later, the situation is quite different – we have a Covid-safe environment in our center and we can offer clear and consistent advice.
“As we are a private center which treats NHS patients, we have been able to continue to offer certain treatments throughout the pandemic, such as scalp cooling for chemotherapy patients – which has not always been available in NHS hospitals. Over 80% of our patients opt for scalp cooling to reduce hair loss from the head caused by certain chemotherapy drugs.
“Unfortunately, at the height of the pandemic, many patients were putting Covid risk above cancer – they were terrified and it had a massive ripple effect. One big impact is that we are now seeing more late-stage cancers being diagnosed, often due to delays in screening or failure to see the GP.
“Covid is real, but so is cancer – it will never go away, so it’s important to get checked before it’s too late. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the cure, but prevention is the We are fortunate that the NHS Trust here in Northumberland has managed the demand for cancer services well in the North East, and that many of our nurses in Rutherford have fee contracts to support the NHS in the event of need.
“I want North East patients to know that there is a massive support network here for them, every step of the way. We have amazing facilities and really experienced staff, and if you are an NHS patient it may also be possible to be treated at our centre.
Rutherford’s independent network currently consists of four cancer treatment centers across the UK and attracts patients from around the world. The centers offer high-energy proton beam therapy and conventional therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy, with state-of-the-art diagnostics including MRI and CT scans.
At Rutherford’s four cancer centers there is a team of expert oncology nurses, each playing a vital role in the cancer treatment process and the overall patient experience.
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