Health: Celebrating 40 years of Macmillan nurses

Macmillan nurse Annette Mawhinney
Macmillan nurse Annette Mawhinney
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As Macmillan Cancer Support marks 40 years of their Macmillan Nurses, LAURA MCMULLAN talks to one of them, Annette Mawhinney, on why she decided to dedicate her life to caring for others

As a little girl, Annette Mawhinney was faced with three choices in terms of her future career.

The Larne woman, now 51, reveals: “When I was little, it was either nursing, ballet dancing or becoming an air hostess. Once I’d decided to be a nurse, though, I never really saw myself as anything else. Looking after other people felt like the right thing to do.”

And it is thanks to people like Annette, who has been working for Macmillan Cancer Support for the past 11 years, that cancer patients across Northern Ireland are able to access specialist care and practical support, that can bring light to their lives in many ways, and help them get through what is often a difficult, painful and stressful time.

Macmillan nursing teams were first introduced to the UK 40 years ago this month, and since then, they have been bringing services and hope to those people affected by cancer.

All nurses are registered with at least five years’ experience, including two or more years in cancer or palliative care, and have completed specialist courses in pain and symptom management, and psychological support.

Whilst most of them work in NHS hospitals or the community, a small number are based in hospices and private hospitals. As specialists they do not routinely undertake nursing care but are there to assess complex needs, give advice to other healthcare professionals and support people with cancer to understand their treatment options.

Over the last four decades, their role has changed and developed, and it will continue to do so, with people living longer with cancer, and often having to deal with the long term consequences of the condition and the potential side effects of treatment.

As a colorectal clinical nurse specialist, Annette supports patients with bowel cancer. She is based in the Northern Health Trust at Antrim Area Hospital and the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine.

And she has personal experience of losing someone close to her through cancer, as her own mother died shortly after being diagnosed with it in 1985.

Her memories of seeing her mother in pain and in need of relief every four hours prompted her to make her decision about becoming a Macmillan nurse.

“My mum received good nursing care,” says Annette. “No doubt about it. But in those days there wasn’t the same specialist knowledge surrounding pain management that there is today. And there wasn’t the same level of support.”

Annette started working as a Macmillan Palliative Care Nurse in 2004, before taking up her current post as Macmillan colorectal clinical nurse specialist with the Northern Trust.

She began her training to be a nurse back in 1982 at the City Hospital in Belfast, and got her first post at the Moyle Hospital in Larne, which closed in 1994 when the new Antrim Area Hospital opened. After working at Inver House in a rehabilitation and palliative care unit, she then moved to the Northern Ireland Hospice as ward manager.

She became a Macmillan palliative care clinical nurse specialist with the Northern Trust in 2004 and took up her current post as Macmillan Colorectal CNS in 2015.

She says that she has seen cancer care evolve and focus more and more on the ‘person’, not just their symptoms.

For Annette, that means supporting patients and their families and carers right from the time of diagnosis, through the different stages of treatment and aftercare. “My role has expanded,” she continues.

“I’ve had to develop specialist knowledge to be able to help people with cancer and their families make informed decisions about their treatment and help them get all the support they need – whether that’s emotional, practical or financial advice.

“We don’t see the person who’s in the hospital bed in isolation. Cancer affects all aspects of their life and the lives of those around them too. So listening and finding time to listen is such an important part of my job - getting to know the family, talking through their concerns and finding out how I can help.

“Sometimes people with cancer don’t know what to do, or who to turn to.

“They may not want to worry their loved ones. Then they remember they can call me and they do. That’s what I’m here for: to reassure and help.”

- If you want to find out more about how you can help a Macmillan nurse to support people living with cancer, visit