Ask a playground full of parents what they fear most for their child and cancer would undoubtedly be within the list.
Though instances of childhood cancer are thankfully rare, such a diagnosis is a stark reality for families of 120 children in the North of England each year.
Ward 4 at Newcastle Hospitals’ Great North Children’s Hospital is where these children and their families find answers, treatment, hope – and each other.
It’s one of the UK’s leading centres for paediatric oncology and it’s where world-leading researchers from Newcastle University work with clinicians to further their understanding of the disease and how to combat it.
With the support of charity North of England Children’s Cancer Research, these partners are driving forward the Future Fund campaign which plans to create the Newcastle University Centre for Childhood Cancer, to accelerate critical work to develop the next generation of children’s cancer therapies that will be brought to the bedside of patients on Ward 4.
The campaign aims to raise £5.5m to create the centre in the city and funds have already come flooding in with Dame Margaret Barbour, chair of the global lifestyle brand Barbour, announcing the Barbour Foundation would be making a £1m donation.
But what is life like behind the doors of the Children and Teenage Cancer Unit? Most parents need only imagine but those who do venture over the threshold find it’s quite unlike anything they expected.
“You kind of imagine it will be a depressing place full of sorrow and anxiety, but it really couldn’t be more different to that,” said Emma Dafter, mum of ten-year-old Mary from Newcastle. She is being treated for a tumour called a Ewing’s sarcoma in the tissue around her shoulder.
“We were like any other parents when we first came onto the ward – we were in shock after the diagnosis. But before we knew it we were wrapped up in a kind of protective bubble built around us by the staff and other families and were being whisked along on our journey to make Mary well again.
“The ward is so full of laughter and positivity that you often forget the big issue that brings us all together. We focus on each next little step and as we do there’s a sense of calmness and real kindness from everyone involved,” she said.
Like almost all of the patients on Ward 4, Mary is already helping researchers to progress their understanding of how to treat her particular type of cancer by taking part in a clinical trial.
“It is so important to learn what we can about childhood cancer because this knowledge will help other children in the future,” said Emma.
“In fact it’s only because of the research on children ten or 20 years ago that doctors know how to treat Mary as well as they do now.”
Ward 4 comprises a children’s ward and a teenage cancer unit, with 18 beds in total. Eight nursing staff are joined daily by a multidisciplinary team including doctors, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dieticians, social workers and activity coordinators to ensure patients have the opportunity to develop socially and emotionally and well as recover physically.
Wendy Balfour is the Junior Sister on Ward 4 and has worked there for 12 years – since she moved to Newcastle from Melrose in the Scottish Borders at the age of 21.
“Although I knew I wanted to specialise in paediatric oncology, I was anxious when I originally found out I had the job because I wondered if I would be able to cope with seeing so many children with cancer, “ she said.
“But I loved it from the minute I set foot on the ward. I loved the intensity of the treatments and the hope they brought and I loved the chance I had to support the patients and their families.
“It’s an incredibly busy ward and in any one day I can be involved in looking after a baby from a few weeks old to an 18 year-old. Our families get very involved with the routines and take on so many of the roles and responsibilities that they become part of the team too. We are very mindful of the parents’ natural urge to take care of their child as normal and we do our best not to step on their toes and let them do the things they’d be doing at home such as bathing and changing the beds.
“We are privileged to spend so much time with our patients and families and because of this we learn what they like and dislike and tailor what we do to make them feel as much at home as possible,” said Wendy.
Eight out of ten children who are treated on Ward 4 will be cured and with the help of the Future Fund campaign new treatments will mean fewer long-term side effects for survivors. These facts and statistics are the positive reserves the medical team draw on when times are tough, Wendy said.
“We work in a really good team that supports each other,” she said.
“We go out socially to unwind and I think that helps us stay strong. When we have a bad day on the ward it’s a really bad day but we have enough context to know there are so many good days and so many success stories,” she adds.
“We all have our favourite patient stories and one of mine involves a young girl who was particularly challenging. She used to beg me for pain relief and I used to constantly explain why she couldn’t have any more. When she recovered from her cancer she decided to become a nurse and I’m sure her experiences have shaped how she approaches caring.
“It is incredibly rewarding when you see your patients healthy and living full and happy lives. Our Christmas parties are especially wonderful when you see them all dressed up and glamorous with a full head of hair and colour in their cheeks. And when you bump into a former patient that now has their own baby it’s a truly amazing reminder for us that life does go on for most. It’s the reason I absolutely love my job”, said Wendy.
For information on the Future Fund please visit www.futurefund.co.uk . To donate visit www.justgiving.com/futurefundnewcastle , text NCFF01 plus the amount of your donation to 70070 or telephone 0191 208 7250. Support the fund on Facebook www.facebook.com/futurefundnewcastle and on Twitter @FutureFundNCL and use the hashtag #NCLFF