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Empathy and understanding your patients are key skills for all nursing staff. But for some, that understanding goes much deeper. 
Beckii Handy, Hannah Hargreaves and Brooke Evans all realised how much of a difference nursing makes, long before they started training in it. They now all care for patients at various departments across Birmingham – but around a decade ago, diagnosed with teenage cancer, they were the patients being cared for by the nursing staff of the same city.  
Now in their 20s, remission and successful practice, they agree that their formative experiences with ill health were instrumental in teaching them the power of the profession they’re proud to be part of, as well as an enhanced appreciation of what their patients might be going through. 

Once she accepted her leukaemia, she took more interest in her nurses’ work

In a full circle moment, Hannah joined the team that cared for her, on the Paediatric Oncology and Haematology ward at Birmingham Children’s Hospital (BCH), with Beckii just down the corridor at the Paediatric Intensive Care unit (PIC). In a similar vein, leukaemia survivor Brooke now works in Haematology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.  

Hannah Beckii closeup smile Above: Hannah and Beckii now enjoy successful nursing careers

Patients’ patience

How did needing nursing care as teenage cancer patients inspire them towards the profession? For Hannah, it solidified what was already there. “I always wanted to work with children – maybe as a nursery nurse,” she explained. But when she was 12, her cousin was diagnosed with paediatric cancer – then four years later, she was too. Initially, this made Hannah want to keep her hospital visits to a minimum. But when her cousin relapsed, she felt pulled towards nursing. 
Beckii also grew up drawn to caring roles, geared towards midwifery. But after beginning treatment for ovarian cancer at 15, she didn’t want any more to do with hospitals, and considered photography instead. However, her plans soon careered back towards health care, first considering paediatric oncology before changing specialism.  

I don’t shout about surviving cancer, but if I think it’ll help my patients, I’ll share it

When Brooke was diagnosed at 17, she was already studying Health and Social Care, admitting to initially being the type of patient she’d find difficult. But once she accepted her leukaemia, she took more interest in her nurses’ work. This encouraged Brooke to resume her studies – ultimately attending university whilst on a two-year block of maintenance chemotherapy.  

Above: Brooke

Despite the differences of their diagnoses, routes into the profession and current roles, Beckii, Hannah and Brooke share some similarities. One is the little gestures displayed to them by their own nurses – which they now try to feed into their interactions with patients.  
Something that stuck with Hannah was her nurses’ responses to her night commode, an unwelcome gift from the fluid intake on chemo for lymphoma. One told her to leave it by the bed, that she would sort it herself – saving Hannah and her mum from walking back and forth to the sluice room at 4am. Now, Hannah does the same, describing her nurses’ kindness as like a family’s.  
Meanwhile, Beckii was initially more inspired by Teenage Cancer Trust’s Youth Support Coordinators. They showed her the power of connection, through events like Find Your Sense of Tumour.  

Beckii fountain
Above: Beckii

Personal to professional  

Years down the line, all three’s consideration for their patients has its base in their own histories.  
“I don’t shout about surviving cancer,” says Hannah, “but if I think it’ll help my patients, I’ll share it. It’s usually when they’re getting their Hickman Line, because it’s a huge adjustment. I show my own scar to put them at ease.”  
If Beckii speaks with an oncology patient, she’d rather signpost them towards charities she knows first-hand they might benefit from, such as the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, rather than relay quite why she has this insight.  

If I tell someone I'll be back in a minute, I make a conscious effort to do so

Brooke says: “My treatment is probably different to theirs, but I know the similarities – like how losing your hair feels like an erasure of your identity, and how horrible steroids are. I mention it if I feel it’ll benefit someone.”  

Hannah smile to camera

Above: Hannah

This has made a practical difference. Hannah recalls one patient panicking about a recent diagnosis. She knelt on the floor to comfort her, something she remembers her own consultant doing. Fundamentally, getting down to her level was a physical gesture – but also a breaking of barriers emotionally.  
“If I tell someone I'll be back in a minute, I make a conscious effort to do so,” adds Hannah, “because I know how boring it is when you’re waiting on one task to get discharged. I also try hard to answer drip-stand beeps – it might seem nothing, but sitting by beeps for hours adds up.”  
As many nurses will be familiar with, sadly sometimes patients die. “In palliative care, I have to put a protective wall up, because the losses of my cancer friends never leaves me,” reflects Brooke.  

Cancer doesn’t end when treatment does – but doesn’t have to consume every element of survivors’ later lives

Hannah agrees: “I try to be really compassionate, but couldn’t do my job without some barrier – and it's not about me, it's about them.”  
Beckii also knows the importance of protecting her mental health, deciding against oncology patients under her remit. “But I look after lots of other children at end-of-life. You only get one shot at facilitating a good death.” 

Hannah Beckii stairs

Above: Hannah and Beckii, from patients in Birmingham to nurses at Birmingham Children's Hospital

New horizons  

The biggest things each has learned as nurses is part informed by their cancer survivorship. For Beckii, it’s quality of life over quantity, and Hannah’s is that her job and cancer both demonstrate her resilience. Brooke feels that leukaemia put her on a different path – one she wouldn’t want to deviate from.  
All three are now well-qualified to advise young patients who might seek their life advice – as Hannah once did. For any patients contemplating nursing, Beckii would praise how rewarding it is, throughout its highs and lows. Nursing helped Hannah become comfortable with her cancer. Working with young cancer patients made her better accept, and later learn, about her own experience.  
It’s clear that cancer doesn’t end when treatment does – but doesn’t have to consume every element of survivors’ later lives, either. As Beckii, Hannah and Brooke show, what it can do is inform the next generations – of fellow nurses and future patients alike.  

Words: Ellie Philpotts
Images of Hannah and Beckii: Steve Baker

Further information about cancer nursing

Find out more about our CYP Cancer Nurses Forum.

See our Professional Development guide on our Career Pathway and Education Framework for Cancer Nursing.

If you’re an RCN member in any setting caring for those with a diagnosis of cancer, you can access our Cancer Forum.

Boxes of Kindness  

A ‘Boxes of Kindness’ scheme to help newly diagnosed cancer patients cope better with their treatment has been launched by breast cancer clinical nurse specialist Amy Byfield. 

She was inspired to create boxes after visiting another hospital in Devon, which ran something similar. A cancer diagnosis can impact all aspects of someone’s life, including financially. “For a lot of people, their income goes down, transport costs to and from treatment can be high,” says Amy. “We’re then saying to people you can’t use the products you usually do because your skin will be more sensitive, plus you need to buy all these extra things. It can be overwhelming, adding even more to someone’s stress.”

The carefully selected range of products include a digital thermometer, ginger tea to combat nausea, pill sorter, soft bamboo toothbrush, chocolate, organic socks, candle, aromatherapy sleep mist, salve to ease dry lips and a mindfulness puzzle book to while away the time during chemo. “Every box is lovingly packed by a volunteer who signs their name,” says Amy. “That’s important because we want it to feel both special and personal.”

She gave the first boxes to newly diagnosed patients in December, after successfully securing funding for the first 100 in partnership with Royal Cornwall Hospitals Charity.

Find out more.

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