In Conversation With Helen Patterson Ward Support Specialist
In the first of a new series of guest blog posts Helen Patterson, Cancer Fund for Children’s Ward Support Specialist is sharing some of her experiences and insights.
Every year in Northern Ireland approx. 76 young people aged between 14 to 25 years old are diagnosed with cancer. As a region we have the highest incidence of teenager and young adult (TYA) cancer diagnosis compared to the rest of the UK.
Helen’s role is to support teenagers and young adults with cancer when they are in hospital receiving treatment. Whilst being part of Cancer Fund for Children’s Community Services Team, she is also part of the Regional TYA Cancer Service which works to ensure all young cancer patients receive age appropriate, high quality practical, social, and emotional support regardless of where they are being treated in Northern Ireland.
Over to Helen…
“During the summer I spent time with a young adult as he was completing 6 weeks of radiotherapy having already had surgery on his brain earlier this year. His brain tumour is particularly rare and has a high chance of returning. As you can imagine this is a challenging reality for anyone to get their head around, but particularly so for an 18 year old. He really is a remarkable young man who attended radiotherapy every day with a smile on his face, and a determination to continue living life with little holding him back.
Being based in the City Hospital places me in a fortunate position where I have been able to pop down flexibly to see him throughout his 6 weeks of radiotherapy. I have spent time getting to know him, and his mum as they waited sometimes over an hour for his treatment appointments to start. I was there for his final radiotherapy appointment and for when he rang the end of treatment bell to a roar of clapping. Being allowed to share in this significant moment with him and his family was a complete privilege, and whilst there may be an element of uncertainty ahead for this young man the positivity he has chosen to have is amazing.”
The New Normal
“When children are on the ward for long periods of time parents can often be like ships in the night as they navigate the chaos and uncertainty a cancer diagnosis brings, trying to manage what has to be their ‘new normal’. I supported a 14 year old on the ward as he received inpatient chemotherapy for 4 weeks. His mum stayed with him during the day and his dad took over during for the night, as they juggled caring for him and their other children.
I facilitated a couple of individual support sessions focused on building models as this was of particular interest of this young man. It was a great diversionary activity but more importantly allowed us time to talk through his life pre-diagnosis and how he was finding treatment. Individual Support also gave his parents an opportunity to have dinner together away from the hospital allowing them to reconnect with one another and plan for an imminent family wedding.”
“Peer activities and distraction form an important part of the ward support role. I recently organised a games night for three young adults in a local hospital, one of whom had spent a long period of time in hospital over the last six months, and is currently finishing his last cycle of inpatient treatment. Our evening involved a competitive and at times tense game of risk, with some impromptu singing thrown in. Creating opportunities for young adults to meet one another, have fun and know that they aren’t alone in what they are going through can support them to maintain motivation for navigating life post treatment.”
Empowering and Connecting
“Sometimes the interactions I have with young people and their families feel quite small. Truthfully at times I can even find myself questioning their significance when I’ve maybe spent an hour talking to someone about holidays or food, making general conversation. However, what can never be underestimated is the significance of connection, in whatever form this takes. When families send me through wedding photographs, or pictures of the food they have made that we spoke about weeks previously, it reminds me why connection is important. These small things are openings and opportunities for bigger questions and conversations.”
“When people feel connected they feel valued. Having a presence on the ward and the opportunity to connect with young people and their families or giving them the space to reconnect is incredible. I hope this leaves families feeling heard, seen and cherished.”