Friday 1st July 2016
Mac Voice, the magazine for Macmillan professionals: Summer 2016
Helen Storey reflects on her experiences after a year in post as Macmillan Oncology Counsellor at Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London.
I have been a cancer counsellor for over twenty years, working for CancerBackup and the Cancer Counselling Trust. As well as a cancer counsellor, I’m also a qualified psychotherapist. During my 11 years at the Cancer Counselling Trust, I met a Macmillan counsellor who came to join our supervision group, and was intrigued by her experience of working in a hospital. At the time I was also studying for my MSc in Person-Centred Psychotherapy at the Metanoia Institute, and just after I graduated a colleague pointed me inthe direction of a Macmillan Counsellor post being advertised at the Cromwell. One year on, I wanted to capture and reflect on the experiences and feelings I’ve encountered as a new Macmillan professional.
In my role I work with people on the wards as well as those coming in for chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I also work with people after they have completed their treatment, and I see couples, families, and people bereaved by cancer. I provide clinical supervision for staff, run a staff support group and offer crisis/short-term staff counselling.
Remembering how I felt
Remembering how I felt as a new member of staff coming into a dramatically different environment helps me provide the best possible support to those I see. I remember how overwhelming the hospital felt at first. For the first few weeks I was constantly getting lost, and that feeling of disorientation is something I always bear in mind when I meet people with cancer coming in for treatment for the first time.
I also remember being staggered by the sheer number of people working in the hospital. It has taken time for me to put names to faces, and work out everyone’s role. People I’ve worked with heads around all the different medical professionals they encounter. I want to ensure I remember how exhausting it was talking to people I didn’t know, and trying to retain the complex information they were giving me– and I wasn’t someone in shock from a diagnosis, or nervous about upcoming treatment.
In my role I also have to manage some complex boundaries. If I go to the waiting room to collect someone, I might find them sitting next to someone who is also seeing me, but who today is waiting for chemotherapy. Relatives may catch me on the corridor to ask how their loved one is doing, and enquire about what we discuss together.
I’m the only counsellor in the hospital but I work within a multidisciplinary team, made up at its core of oncology doctors, a Macmillan breast clinical nurse specialist (CNS), a Macmillan palliative CNS, a Macmillan nurse navigator, nurses, health assistants, physiotherapists and a massage therapist, with access to a wider team of key people within the hospital, including consultants and surgeons. That brings with it many positive experiences as well as challenges. One of the main things I’ve realised is that when I’m around the hospital, I’m never off duty. Staff may catch me on the stairs, or when I am popping out for lunch. Even though I can arrange formal time to discuss issues, I’m aware that my responses to those rushed interactions convey something about my values and how I work as a counsellor.
My sessions are confidential, so how I am on the stairs or in a staff meeting is one of the few ways I have of modelling how I work as a Macmillan Counsellor. It’s important I demonstrate that individuals deserve to be treated with respect, that feelings are worth attending to, and that reaching out for support is not a sign of weakness.
The nature of my job means it’s vital that I attend to myself. I go for a walk at lunchtime, and have some quiet time at breakfast before the rush of the day starts. My working hours can often seem at odds with those of my colleagues – they see me leaving promptly at 5pm, when they may be on shift from 8am to 8pm. In an environment where many colleagues are dealing with emergencies, the pace of my work can seem out of place. But it’s imperative I remember that what I do is no less valid.
Reflecting on what I have learnt
Now the hospital is very familiar. Staff have become colleagues and friends, and it’s hard to remember getting lost when I first arrived. But I believe as professionals we need to keep in mind our experiences of being ‘new’, so we can fully hear how intense the experience of a hospital setting can feel to someone coming in for the first time.
Speaking a shared language
Recently I visited Chelsea and Westminster Hospital to meet Russ Hargreaves, a Macmillan Counsellor there for over 15 years. Chelsea and Westminster is a much bigger hospital, but we still spoke a shared language and I went away feeling refreshed, encouraged and inspired. World's Biggest Coffee Morning in September provided a fun way for the Macmillan team at the Cromwell to come together, fundraise for Macmillan, and publicise our roles within the hospital.
Being able to meet other Macmillan professionals, and reading about good practice elsewhere has really helped me feel understood and connected. In an often hectic work environment, learning from the experiences of others helps me to step back, take a breath and anchor myself in the world again.