A teenage cancer support specialist has spoken of how she hopes the Future Fund campaign will help improve the long-term quality of life for young people who have beaten the disease.
Cara Smith, a Teenage Cancer Trust Youth Support Coordinator, works with scores of young people every year in her role at Newcastle Hospitals’ Great North Children’s Hospital (GNCH) where she organises social activities and provides emotional support through every step of their cancer journey.
Though eight out of ten of the patients Cara works with will be cured, many survivors will face long-term side effects relating to their original treatments – an issue that the Future Fund aims to tackle. A collaborative project between Newcastle University, the GNCH and the North of England Children’s Cancer Research charity, the fund will create a new £5.5 million Newcastle University Centre for Childhood Cancer where more targeted and less toxic therapies can be developed.
Cara said: “Everyone involved with the teenage cancer unit is incredibly supportive of the aim to create a children’s cancer research centre right here in Newcastle where we can fly the flag for the next generation of cancer treatments.
“Current treatments are very successful in terms of fighting the cancer but every day we see the physical toll they take on our young patients who struggle with terrible ulcers and sickness. In my role supporting young people for up to three years after they have left hospital, I also appreciate the extent of the long-term damage that is sometimes caused to their lives. It’s not just physical side effects – everything from relationships to employment prospects can be affected by the disruption to schooling and development. It would be incredible to think we could help more young people go on to have a better quality of life after their battle with cancer is over.”
Cara, formerly a primary school teacher, works closely with the hospital’s team of specialist nurses to understand the medical needs of her patients. She then provides appropriate emotional, social and developmental support to help them overcome the challenges of growing up on a teenage cancer unit – providing or sourcing advice on everything from hair loss and body image to sexual health, careers guidance and smoking cessation.
And despite the nature of their challenging work, Cara says she and her colleagues remain incredibly upbeat. “Before I got the job I worried about how I’d cope with seeing so many young people struggling with cancer,” she admits. “But actually I quickly found I don’t see them as cancer patients – they are just a group of teenagers and this cancer business comes second to that. I think that’s why the service works so well and it’s why the young people trust me and open up to me.
“People generally have certain expectations when they step foot on the children’s wards for the first time. They imagine them to be places of sorrow and they are often quite surprised by the reality. Yes, there are young people with no hair and tubes sticking out of their bodies and that can be quite shocking to see, but more noticeable is the fact that the whole place is filled with laughter and fun. It is an incredibly positive atmosphere and that helps create the homely feeling that helps get our families through their experience when they are facing the anxieties of a diagnosis and the reality of treatment.”
Though Cara is based on the Teenage Cancer Unit, her role organising exciting and stimulating activities for her patients takes her far and wide and to some of the most unlikely places from rock concerts and meeting celebrities to VIP fashion events and even swimming in the River Tyne. On the hospital’s teenage cancer unit itself, the ‘penthouse’ facility is the focus of activities from film-making and animation to musical tuition and crafts.
“I design activities to try to get our young people up and out of bed and socialising with other people their age,” Cara says. “The facilities on the unit are phenomenal and the whole environment has been specifically designed with their comfort in mind. Socialising helps our patients to realise that they aren’t the only one going through this. Everyone working on the ward knows and understands the side effects of the treatments and they don’t have to have this explained to them and this is a relief for our patients who feel they can just relax. They rarely wear their wigs or headscarves and feel this is a place where they can just be themselves.
“There are some very strong and lasting bonds formed and friendships are built that will last a lifetime. The way children and young people cope with such challenging issues is really humbling and it can be quite heart-wrenching to witness how selfless and strong they can be. I always remember the occasion when one 18 year-old lad bought get well soon cards from the hospital for the other teenage boys on the ward and posted them under their doors – despite being just as unwell himself. Moments like that really stay with you and make you feel privileged to work in such an amazing place.”
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