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Nikki Morris was once a specialist cancer nurse – the first gynaecology oncology specialist nurse at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals Trust, in fact – and is now the CEO of Age UK Camden. She’s also the Chair of the RCN Cancer and Breast Care Forum.

The RCN has 35 nursing forums – professional networks dedicated to different nursing specialties. RCN members can join as many as they want, and share expertise, advice and resources with other members. Each forum has a committee and chairperson (like Nikki), who lead development and activities related to the group’s specialist area – anything from the creation of career resources and clinical guidance, to putting on lectures and exhibitions.

Nikki is now in her final year as chair, having been a committee member for nearly eight years. During that time, they’ve created the Career and Education Framework for Cancer Nursing, which they’d like to see integrated into workforce planning programmes across the UK, plus an important publication on breast cancer care standards.

We’re often the only nurse at the table. That’s a big responsibility

“Those were two really big pieces of work,” Nikki says. “But the other thing we’ve focused on is increasing our representation on prominent committees so that we can influence decision-makers.”

RCN forums can play a crucial role influencing at local, national and even international level. The Cancer and Breast Care Forum has been a member of NHS England’s Specialist Cancer Surgery Clinical Reference Group, the Cancer Recovery Task Force (COVID-19), cancer outcomes strategy implementation advisory group, and more. The forum is also involved with European and global oncology nursing groups.

Representing the RCN

Nikki is currently on the Health and Social Care Committee’s Expert Panel, evaluating the progress on some of the government’s commitments to cancer services in England. “Committees working at that level will often approach the RCN for nursing representation. That need will be met by RCN staff or if it’s more appropriate it will come to the forum committee,” Nikki explains. “It shows the impressive reputation that the RCN has in this type of work, and also how the RCN values and trusts the forum.”

There are two big benefits to being part of such committees, Nikki says: “By working with decision-makers and playing a part in meetings, as well as providing expertise we also learn a lot about cancer services and the wider health care context. It’s an opportunity for us to look at health services UK-wide, so that we as RCN forum committee members we are not insular to the geographical area or disease site we’re in, but can represent our members and patients with that wider knowledge and understanding.

Microscope image of cancerous cells

Above: cancerous cells seen under a microscope

“Secondly, we’re often the only nurse at the table. That’s a big responsibility, but we have a real insight into what the nursing issues are and the patient perspective. All of these committees want a holistic view – they want to understand the impact of health policies and services and what the issues are from a nursing perspective.”

Whoever is chosen to sit on the committee or panel can draw from the collective expertise of the forum, plus that of the RCN nursing professional lead who works with them. “That’s crucial, because you’re representing the forum, but you’re also representing the RCN.”

The voice of nursing staff

In the aftermath of COVID-19 and with a decade of austerity biting, it’s a crucial time for nursing staff to be heard, and for RCN members to influence health care decisions.

In cancer care, Nikki says: “There are two big issues: one is workforce, which predates COVID-19; second is the effect of COVID on cancer services and individuals.”

I’m always amazed by the experience and expertise we find within the forum

Issues of succession planning, plus expanding and upskilling the workforce to keep pace with patient numbers and new treatments are vital issues that forum members can raise if they’re part of the right conversations.

For any forum to influence successfully, they need enthusiastic and knowledgeable members. “We really value people coming forward wanting to be on the committee, because we’re only as good as the committee we have,” Nikki says. “I’m always amazed by the experience and expertise we find within the forum.”

Cancer Clinical Nurse Specialist Day

Nursing staff celebrated the first ever National Cancer Clinical Nurse Specialist Day on 15 March, recognising the role and contribution of these expert nurses. It’s a cause close to Nikki’s heart.

“If we look back and say what have been the major successes in cancer care provision over the past 30 years, you’d have to say creation of the cancer nurse specialist role is one of them," she says. "There’s a strong link between provision of a specialist nurse and the patient experience of cancer care. We don’t always recognise the value that this role brings, so it’s really important to step back and say: that’s the difference they make.”

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