Home News and Events News North East nurse reflects on life as a cancer nurse two years on from the pandemic

Ashleigh McDonald, is a Lead SACT (Systemic Anti-Cancer Therapy) nurse at Rutherford Cancer Centre North East – a UK-wide network of specialist centres treating private and NHS patients – which is located in Bedlington.

According to McDonald, who is 42 years old and lives in Whitley Bay, the past two years has brought challenges for all nurses, but behind the scenes she and her team have been continuing to treat vulnerable patients amid the wider strain on the UK’s health services.

After experiencing first-hand what it is like to lose a family member to the disease when she was just 19 years old, to mark International Nurses Day, she shares the realities of being a cancer nurse today.

McDonald said: “I have been an oncology nurse for over 18 years now, and joined the Rutherford team three years ago. I lost my mum to colon cancer when I was 19 years old which definitely drove my passion for this area of medicine, and inspires me every day to be the best nurse I can be.

It is an area of nursing where you need to provide a lot of support – every patient has a different experience, and they are going through their own personal journey, and it is my job to ensure we make it as comfortable as possible for them.”

As the lead nurse at the centre, McDonald is responsible for managing patients and staff, working closely with consultants, handling referrals, booking pre-assessments, and educating patients on the side effects of their treatment options. McDonald and her team also offer a 24-hour support helpline for patients.

“Although this is a management role, I still like to attend patient clinics – having patient contact is really important to me. At Rutherford we are able to offer a truly bespoke cancer service for our patients, and with it being a private centre (which also treats NHS patients) we are able to spend more time with each patient which can make such a difference to someone who is undergoing treatment.

“There are some very difficult times when it comes to treating cancer patients – many of them have just started to accept the reality that they have cancer – so as a nurse I find it a privilege to able to support them through this time. Often, we find that we need to support the families of our patients too. It is important that we do what we can to build the strongest support network for the patient.

“During the height of the pandemic, patients weren’t able to bring a friend or family member to any of their appointments. Added to that we obviously had very strict protocols for social distancing and PPE which made what is already a very isolating experience even harder. As a nurse your intuition is to comfort your patient, and working in these conditions made it unbelievably tough. We found we’d have to do a lot of follow up phone consultations as we relied on that extra set of ears. When a patient is going through 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 about the constantly changing rules, and general anxiety about Covid and how this could affect them. Two years on, the situation is quite different – we have a Covid-safe environment at our centre and we can offer clear and consistent advice.

“As we are a private centre which treats NHS patients, we have been able to continue offering certain treatments throughout the pandemic, such as scalp cooling for chemotherapy patients, which hasn’t always been available at NHS hospitals. Over 80% of our patients opt for scalp cooling to reduce hair loss from the head caused by some chemotherapy drugs.

“Sadly, during the height of the pandemic, many patients were putting the risk of Covid above cancer – they were terrified and it has had a massive knock on effect. A big impact is that we’re now seeing more late stage cancers being diagnosed, often as a result of screening delays or not going to the GP. Covid is real, but so is cancer – it is never going to go away so it is so important to get yourself checked before it’s too late. The earlier the diagnosis the better the cure, but prevention is the ideal.

“We’re fortunate that the NHS Trust here in Northumberland has been good at managing the demand for cancer services in the North East, and many of our nurses at the Rutherford have honorary contracts to support the NHS when needed.

“I want patients in the North East 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 can be possible to be treated at our centre too.”

Rutherford’s independent network currently consists of four cancer treatment centres across the UK and draws patients from across the world. The centres offer high energy proton beam therapy and conventional therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiotherapy, with state-of-the-art diagnostics including MRI and CT.

Across the four Rutherford Cancer Centres, there’s an expert team of oncology nurses, each one playing a vital role in the cancer treatment process and the overall patient experience.

The global celebration of nursing is held annually on 12 May – the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. The theme for this year is ‘a voice to lead: invest in nursing and respect rights to secure global health’.

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