Shropshire cancer team saved me from suicide - one woman's message of hope
Cancer sufferer Clare Wheatley has described how a new support service in Shropshire saved her from despair and possibly suicide
The 54-year-old, from Shrewsbury, revealed she had a suicide box made up after her diagnosis over concerns that she did not have the financial means to cope with living with her illness.
She was helped by a partnership between Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust, Macmillan Cancer Support and The Lingen Davies Cancer Fund.
Together, they have expanded the range of support available to patients living with cancer through a programme called Living With and Beyond Cancer. Funded by Macmillan, it offers practical support to sufferers and their families.
Clare said: “At diagnosis you are given so much information, but the service gave me comfort.”
It is hard to imagine anything more devastating than being told you have cancer. Fears about the future, the nature of the treatment, the impact on loved ones represent a near-impossible burden. And then there is the added financial pressure if the illness affects one's ability to work.
It certainly took its toll on Clare. "I had a suicide box made up," she says bluntly. "I would have taken my own life were it not for the support I received from the Macmillan benefits team.
"I didn't have enough money to live on, I had two assessments and two tribunals in front of a judge. I didn't have the mental capacity to get through that on my own," she says.
Clare's story, following her diagnosis with breast cancer in 2011, is a reminder of the huge emotional and mental pressures that life with the illness can prevent. This has led to Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust, working with Macmillan Cancer Support and The Lingen Davies Cancer Fund, to expand the range of support available to patients living with cancer.
Leah Morgan is manager of the Living With and Beyond Cancer programme, funded by the Macmillan charity. It aims to broaden the range of support available to patients during the treatment process, so that patients are now offered counselling, fitness training, help with their appearance as well as advice about money matters and benefits. It also seeks to help patients adapt to life after treatment.
"We started the programme in July, following a report by NHS England in 2015," she says.
"It found that while patients were happy with the treatment they received, the after care when the treatment had finished needed to be looked at."
Clare, who lives in the Harlescott area of Shrewsbury, says her diagnosis came at a particularly traumatic time, as her mother had died just eight months earlier, having been diagnosed first with breast cancer and later with bone cancer.
And the news came like a bolt out of the blue.
"I came into the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital for a regular mammogram for a cyst," she says. "A tumour was hiding behind the cyst, so I wasn't aware of anything out of the ordinary."
The two-week wait following the biopsy, which confirmed cancer was present, was particularly agonising.
"It seemed like a year," she says. "I just wanted to know whether I had cancer or not."
But Clare says she took huge comfort from the specialist nurse who sat in on the meeting when the consultant explained the options to her.
"There was so much information, and not everything sank in at first," she says. "But afterwards I was able to ask her questions, and she helped fill in the blanks."
Clare, who was working as a secretary at the time, opted to have a lumpectomy, removing part of the breast, after discussing the matter with her husband.
Jessica Greenwood, the trust's lead cancer nurse, says patients are now allocated a specialist clinical nurse right from diagnosis.
"We review the patient as a whole, looking at their physical, psychological and emotional needs," she says.
"Financial concerns can be important, especially if they are self-employed, and could be off work for 12 months while they have chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The Macmillan benefits team can help them with advice about the different benefits they might be entitled to."
The patients are all issued with a questionnaire, which enables the nursing team to build a wider picture about each individual, and tailor a care plan around them.
Matron Angie Cooper says: "It gives us a chance to get to know the patient better, we can find out a bit about them.
"Everybody's got different concerns, they might have young children, they might be a carer for their wife or husband, it's an opportunity for us to make sure we are aware of everything we need to know."
At this stage, they will then meet the 'multi-disciplinary care team', a group of medical staff specialising in the different areas appropriate to meeting their care needs. The specialist clinical nurse will stay with them throughout the programme, acting as a point of contact for any questions they might have over the course of their treatment.
There is also a 24-hour telephone helpline, available to give advice in the event of any complications surrounding the treatment.
The patient, along with relatives or carers, will be invited to a 'Living Well' session, which provides information regarding all the different support services. At the moment, these have all been hospital based, but from the new year they will be held at different locations around the county. Anybody who is affected by cancer, be it a patient, relative or carer, is invited to attend.
Miss Greenwood says the charity Look Good, Feel Better provides sessions for women at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital's Hamar Centre. These offer advice about cosmetics, hair loss and dealing with problems such as the loss of eyebrows.
"We have an exercise adviser," she adds. "It's not about getting a gym pass, or expecting people to start running, it's about small things people can do to get more exercise and become more active," she says.
This was something that was not available to Clare while she was receiving her treatment, but it is something that motivated her to change her career. This, she says, was actually a good thing to come out of her battle with cancer.
"I stopped being a secretary, I wanted to work with people going through similar experiences, explaining the benefits of physical activity," she says.
"I'm now a cancer rehabilitation exercise gym instructor. I now realise the importance of getting fit before surgery.
"If I had done that before my treatment, my experience would have been much better."
Having been given the all-clear, Clare is full of praise for everybody who supported her throughout the process, including the Lingen Davies Cancer Fund, which raised the money to pay for the cancer centre at the hospital.
"If it wasn't for that I would had to have travelled miles for my treatment, probably to Birmingham or Christies in Manchester," she says.
Lingen Davies chief executive Naomi Atkin says the charity has just passed the £850,000 mark in its latest drive to raise £1.2 million, and this will go to providing a wide range of services to make the life of cancer patients better.
- Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust - www.sath.nhs.uk
- Macmillan Cancer Support - macmillan.org.uk
- The Lingen Davies Cancer Fund - lingendavies.co.uk
Help and advice for those having a mental health crisis is available from a number of agencies in Shropshire.