Breast Cancer Care is celebrating 25 years of the pink ribbon. We chatted with Breast Cancer Care nurse Catherine to learn more about her role and the charity’s work.
Q: What do you do?
A: I’m one of 10 nurses in our nursing team at Breast Cancer Care. As the Clinical Nurse Specialist for secondary breast cancer, my role is to advise teams across Breast Cancer Care on issues affecting people diagnosed with the condition. Secondary breast cancer is when breast cancer cells spread to other places in the body, such as the bones or lungs. Also known as stage 4, metastatic or advanced breast cancer, it is treatable, but incurable.
Like all my nursing colleagues I also spend time working with those we support, on our free national Helpline and Ask Our Nurses email service, and I’m involved with the development and delivery of our Living with Secondary Breast Cancer services which are in many locations across the UK. I also coordinate our secondary breast cancer nurses forum, a group of nurses working in hospital units with those with secondary breast cancer. The forum provides the opportunity to learn together and network to share ideas about improving care.
Q: How did you end up doing what you’re doing?
A: My interest in the care of those diagnosed with breast cancer came from working on a surgical ward in the late 1990s. I could see how much women needed the support at such a difficult time. I’ve worked in both private and NHS hospitals where women have been screened or had breast symptoms investigated which have lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer. I’ve also spent time working with and supporting those undergoing and recovering from treatment. 10 years ago I began working on Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline for anyone affected by breast cancer. Working one day a week while also working part time in the NHS, I came to learn and understand what wonderfully valuable work the charity does. As a consequence, one year later, I was successful in getting a permanent nurse specialist role with the charity, with a special focus on primary breast cancer. After a period of time working back in the NHS (but still working on the Helpline!), three years ago I returned as a clinical nurse specialist for secondary breast cancer, a role I love and through which I have learnt lots and met such wonderful people.
I am constantly inspired by those who give their all and support each other for a cause.
Q: Talk us through a typical working day
A: I really don’t have a typical day! Although we’re obviously not an emergency service the team always want to respond to the needs of those who contact us via the Helpline or Ask Our Nurse email service as soon as we can, so often we change other scheduled work to manage this.
I do always start my day with a cup of decaf coffee and a glass of water while reading my emails though! If I’m on the rota to work on the Helpline or email service I attend a briefing meeting for 15 minutes before lines open. I’ll then spend the four-hour session either on the Helpline answering calls or writing replies to emails. These can involve answering specific questions about breast cancer treatment, diagnosis or breast awareness, or simply listening to someone explain how they are feeling and signposting them to further help and support where necessary.
When I’m not involved with these particular services I often spend time with our Policy and Campaigns team. In recent months they have put together a great campaign focused on secondary breast cancer, and they regularly ask for my input. I also liaise a lot with our service teams that coordinate our Living with Secondary Breast Cancer services, now in nearly 30 locations across the UK. I might also go and deliver a talk or facilitate a discussion with the women at one of the services, or provide training support to external healthcare professionals or staff internally, so I get around the country!
I was asked to rewrite and update the Secondary Breast Cancer Resource information pack for those diagnosed, and last year it won an award at the British Medical Association patient information awards! I was so proud that it won.
At the moment I’m finalising the details of our next forum meeting, so have to put what event planning skills I have into action, but I also recently attended a meeting at the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a patient representative. A couple of weeks ago I did some training with the facilitators of our Moving Forward services for people following their treatment and during the summer I was lucky enough to go and present at a secondary breast cancer conference in Milan which was nerve-wracking but a wonderful experience.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
A: ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself,’ something I’ve tried to live up to in the time I’ve been working my roles in breast care.
Q: Tell us who inspires you
A: There are many people in my life that inspire me. Three members of my family work in the military, so I am constantly inspired by those who give their all and support each other for a cause. That also includes the women I meet as part of my job, especially those with secondary breast cancer, who, when given the opportunity to meet others in a similar position, advocate for and support each other through such difficult times with courage and true empathy.
Q: What’s keeping you busy these days?
A: As a wife and mum of three, like many people I thought life would get simpler as everyone got older but it seems to get more complicated! I live in the Midlands and work 3 days a week in London at our Breast Cancer Care office there, and one day in our Northern regional office in Sheffield. Juggling my commute keeps me busy so I feel fortunate that one day a week I’m able to work from home. With my three grown-up children all in different places across the country and my husband working away from home Monday to Friday I often juggle my weeks in an attempt to catch up with any of them!
Q: What’s something you’ve always wanted to try but been too scared to do?
A: I so wish I had the guts to do a parachute jump! I’ve got better at living for today and saying yes to things I would have previously turned down (this job has definitely taught me to do that) but I can’t see this happening – ever!
Q: Do you have any pre-work rituals?
A: I hate leaving the house untidy (my family will vouch for that!) so although I have little time before setting out to get to work I almost always empty the dishwasher and tidy the kitchen!
I feel fortunate that I have the time to spend with people and feel that at that time I’ve done my best for them, even if it’s been challenging mentally. Emotional resilience is something we all need to learn how to build in this area of work.
Q: What’s your most memorable career moment so far?
A: As part of our role, the nurses here at Breast Cancer Care review all of our publications on a regular basis to make sure they are up to date and accurate for patients to read. Just after I started in my current role, I was asked to rewrite and update the Secondary Breast Cancer Resource information pack for those diagnosed, and last year it won an award at the British Medical Association patient information awards! I was so proud that it won.
Q: What advice would you give anyone who wants to do what you do?
A: Sometimes in our busy schedules it’s easy to think we know what support and care people need when they share a similar situation. So my advice would always be to listen and make sure that you identify what’s most important to individual so you can prioritise the support you can offer.
Q: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
A: Apart from the fact people often say I look too young to have 3 adult children which pleases me no end, I was recently forwarded an email by a colleague from a Breast Cancer Care volunteer. She mentioned that I was her nurse when she was diagnosed and that I was the ‘best breast care nurse in the history of the breast clinic’! She was clearly biased and I have met so many wonderful nurses but it’s lovely to hear that someone thinks you did a great job!
10 years ago I began working on Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline for anyone affected by breast cancer. Working one day a week while also working part time in the NHS, I came to learn and understand what wonderfully valuable work the charity does.
Q: What made you want to work for a charity like BCC?
A: I think the variety of work streams we have the opportunity to take part in, and a big factor was the time I would be able to spend listening and talking to people, rather than rushing around in a clinic. It’s never easy to describe my job to anyone else but I do love it.
Q: The job must be emotionally very challenging – what qualities does someone need to have to do what you do?
A: I feel fortunate that I have the time to spend with people and feel that at that time I’ve done my best for them, even if it’s been challenging mentally. Emotional resilience is something we all need to learn how to build in this area of work, but we also support each other very much and have the opportunity to debrief about our feelings, which works really well.
I’ve got better at living for today and saying yes to things I would have previously turned down (this job has definitely taught me to do that)
Q: How can we best support someone we know who is affected by breast cancer?
A: Just by being there. I’ve learnt that none of us really know how we would react if we were placed in the same situation, even if we think we do right now, so you can’t make judgements. Cancer is a scary thing, and staying with that person and listening to them talk through their experience and what’ s going through their mind rather than keeping your distance is hard, but it’s such a support to them and they will value it, and you, always.
To support 25 years of the pink ribbon Dorothy Perkins has created a Breast Cancer Care collection. This season, 10% of the selling price of each item will go to the charity.