Coping with cancer — a nurse’s story

According to recent statistics from Cancer Research UK, one in two people* born after 1960 in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. The good news is that more people than ever are beating cancer. Now 50 per cent survive for 10 years or more*.

Sue McNelly

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, not just for the person affected, but for their family too. And many people often don’t know where to get the support to help them cope with their illness.

With our Helping Hand service, your clients have access to a personal nurse adviser from RedArc, who can give them tailored practical and emotional support during difficult times in their lives.

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RedArc nurse Sue McNelly (pictured) explains the key benefits of a personal nurse adviser for cancer patients and their families.

“As a nurse, I think you have to be prepared for anything when speaking to someone who is diagnosed with cancer.

“The main thing to remember is, whatever the illness, you’re talking with a human being whose life has been turned upside down, and this has a ripple effect on everyone around them. We’re here to guide and support them through probably one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.”

Managing the initial fear

“Reactions can vary so much. The telephone support we offer allows us to really listen to what the person is saying. Although treatments and outcomes for cancer have improved increasingly over the years, the initial reaction of many people remains primarily fear.

“Many people still associate the word cancer with dying and they’re terrified this might happen to them. They may also be afraid of what lies ahead. As RedArc nurses, we’re here to listen to their fears and hopefully put things in a little more perspective for them.”

Helping patients understand

“It’s not unusual for patients to only take in a small proportion of the information they’ve been given. Each diagnosis and presentation of cancer is completely different, as are the treatments. We can talk through what it means for them. We can also support this by sending out written, understandable information.”

Giving them the time they need

“People are often disbelieving or even in denial about their diagnosis. They really can’t understand that this could happen to them or their loved one. Having cancer can be a loss either of the life they knew or the life they had planned. Most of us have an idea of how we might like our future to be and just live our day-to-day lives with the expectation that things will mostly remain the same and that plans for things like having a family, celebration or retirement will all come to fruition. A diagnosis of cancer changes all this in an instant and emotions can be very similar to those experienced during bereavement.

“Many people are still in shock so really just need an opportunity to tell their story. We allow them as much time as they need to be able to do this. Quite often time in the NHS can be limited or people feel they need to put on a brave face or be positive or strong for their loved ones. They may actually need some time to feel sad or angry and release these emotions. We provide a non-judgmental space for them to be able to offload.”

Coping with the side effects of treatment

“We support people in adapting to the changes diagnosis and treatment of cancer can bring. If someone is young it can be difficult — for example, knowing that treatments can have an effect on fertility, particularly if they’ve not yet started a family. We can provide information and encourage them to get referred to speak to someone who may specialise in this area or access appropriate counselling if needed.

“Someone’s body image can be crucial to their confidence and social skills. There are some programmes available that offer advice on things like hair and skin care. Some hairdressers have specialist knowledge and experience. RedArc nurses are able to offer further information about gaining access to these services.”

Helping the family understand

“A diagnosis of cancer affects the whole family, including children. Sometimes people don’t know what to say to their child. Usually children are very sensitive and perceptive to change and cope better with being told what’s happening. We keep lots of age-appropriate information that helps parents talk to children about cancer.”

Giving ongoing support

“Personal nurse advisers are there to provide ongoing emotional and practical support and we stay in touch for as long as we’re needed. Our nurses are here, however the person is feeling and whatever the situation. We tailor our support to meet an individual’s needs.

“The continuity of the relationships we have enables us to get to know the person and their families and it’s lovely to know that we can make a positive difference.”

“A Helping Hand personal nurse adviser can support your clients in many different ways.

“For example, they can carry out research into your client’s illness and treatment options. They’ll help to develop a care plan. And they can organise additional services such as a face-to-face second medical opinion, counselling or complementary therapies. All at no extra cost.”

To find out more about Helping Hand and the role of a personal nurse adviser, visit

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