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Column: Battling cancer can be a very lonely time – we're here to talk people through it

Daffodil Centres offer a free, walk-in service to anyone who needs to know more about cancer – whether they have lifestyle questions or have received a diagnosis. Nurse Fionnuala Keane explains more about this invaluable service.

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Today marks the Irish Cancer Society’s 26th Daffodil Day, which aims to bring support and care to people affected by cancer. Here, Daffodil Centre nurse Fionnuala Keane discusses her work giving free advice and support to patients and their loved-ones – at all stages of the process.

THE DAFFODIL CENTRES were set up by the Irish Cancer Society, which is always looking at how to improve services for the community. The centre in the Mater Hospital, where I work, opened an year and a half ago. 

To give you an idea of the footfall, there were 4,006 contacts with the Daffodil Centre in the Mater Hospital last year. The Irish Cancer Society is aware - the need for information about cancer and cancer prevention, which is why the Daffodil Centres were set up. 

People come into the centres for a variety of reasons – it could be because they are worried about potential symptoms of cancer or side-effects to treatment, for example. It’s a free service and open to the general public. You can just walk in, without a referral, and we can talk you through your concerns.

Helping at every stage of the process

The people that visit the centre often walk in off the street. They might want to know how they can reduce their risk of developing cancer or how they might change their lifestyle; they might be people worried about a genetic risk (although only a small proportion of society has a genetic risk); they might be people with symptoms – for example a cough that hasn’t cleared up or with a mole they’re concerned about. 

If the Daffodil Centre service wasn’t there, someone with those questions or concerns  may not know when they should seek medical advice. We give them information and tell them how to access services. We can advise them if it’s necessary to see a doctor .

Staff at the Centre use trusted information, which is invaluable to someone who is worried or has just been diagnosed. So many people have access the internet now and have access to a lot of information – but it’s about having access to the right information. That’s where we come in.

I’m a qualified cancer nurse with a long background in oncology and we also have 20 specially trained volunteers at the centre. The volunteers are an essential part of this service; their role is to meet and greet people coming into the centre and, if the visitor needs more information, they can refer them to me.

The stress of waiting

A lot of people who come to the centre are people going for tests. They may be worried about a diagnosis and it can be a very lonely time – one of the most stressful things is waiting for the results. But people are also very worried about their finances these days and want to know about their entitlements. We’re seeing more and more people coming to us and saying: “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, how will I deal with this financially?”

We try to walk people affected by cancer through the process they will experience in order to take away the fear of the unknown. So, for example, we have an ‘understanding chemotherapy’ programme for patients and family members on a weekly basis. We bring them to the Day Ward and discuss with them the typical day in the Oncology day Ward - it’s a group session, so they don’t feel alone.

You see, when a patient receives a cancer diagnosis, the consultant tells them everything they need to know – but the person doesn’t absorb it all. It’s very stressful for them, they can be in shock.

Understanding the experience

It’s also very important for family members to understand the process that their loved-one will go through, so it’s not alien to them. A lot of family members want extra information but they don’t want to burden the person who is ill with a lot of questions. We have the time to listen to people. 

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The service means so much to people. I’ve just had a lady in – her best friend has been diagnosed – and she was very frightened. But, by talking through it, her fears were lifted. She now knows ways that she can help her friend, what questions to ask, things to be aware of. 

For those who are ill, too, the service gives them information and confidence. Some are unsure about questions they can – or should – ask doctors and nurses. They can run through things with us and we can say “yes, absolutely ask that”, and they feel a little more empowered. When a patient has an appointment with a doctor or nurse, time is very limited so it’s great that they can go in there equipped with the questions they want answered.

Giving people strength

In the Centre, we have an area where people can browse and collect information, and also a private area for a consultation. Our role is quite varied, but we’re always available to people – anyone can just walk in and talk to us. 

It’s an emerging service and a lot of people still don’t know about us, which is a shame because it really helps people. Just the other day a man who was transferred from another hospital came in and said: “If only I had known about this place when I got my diagnosis.”

It’s such a rewarding job – knowing that you can give someone strength by talking to them, or by letting them share their personal experiences. I worked in oncology for many years and, you have less and less time with patients. It’s not the nurses’ or doctors’ fault, there’s just huge time pressure, the services are so busy.

Fionnula Keane is a Cancer Information Service Nurse at the Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Centre in the Mater Hospital.

About the author:

Fionnuala Keane

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