A dedicated Macmillan cancer specialist is celebrating 21 years of serving her local community. And 43 years of working within the NHS!
Tarlika Patel from Chipstead, who helped set up, and now manages, the Macmillan Butterfly Centre at Epsom, and the Cancer Information and Support Centre at St Helier hospitals, has witnessed significant changes in cancer treatment during her tenure, as well as directly helping countless cancer patients in the area.
And while Tarlika is positive about advances in cancer care, she sees daily the multitude of challenges currently impacting cancer patients – from Covid to the cost of living crisis.
Tarlika: “When I started out in the NHS in 1979, consultants would use euphemisms like “bad cells” or a “little nastiness”, anything but use the actual word “cancer”. It used to be seen as a death sentence.
“But over the last 21 years, I have seen more people surviving cancer, which is fantastic. People’s outcomes are improving – thanks to new drugs, new screening techniques, new advances. There’s a lot more hope out there. And even when people aren’t cured, they are living longer with a better quality of life.
“I’ve also seen first-hand the changes in attitude to mental health – counselling used to have a lot of stigma attached, but now people are far more open and realise how helpful it can be to process the trauma of being diagnosed.
Tarlika shared the current biggest worry affecting people with cancer: “The main challenge facing people with cancer back then is still much the same now – the financial burden, people losing their jobs, having to use their savings to live. But now, everything is so much more expensive, so that financial burden can hit harder.”
The cancer information and support centres at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust offer practical, financial, and emotional support to anyone impacted by cancer – be they a patient, loved one or carer. Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust offers care to patients across south west London and north Surrey.
Tarlika: “I started my Macmillan career back in September 2000, when I was employed to set up the new Macmillan Information and Support Centre at Epsom Hospital. At the time, I was a radiotherapy radiographer so was already working with cancer patients. But I was getting increasingly interested in people and the impact a cancer diagnosis had on them…the human side. As a radiographer, I wasn’t able to spend much time with a patient – the technology meant that I didn’t even necessarily have to be in the same room. Yet I wanted to build relationships with these individuals, going through such a difficult time and see how I could best support them.
“I was seeking more meaningful interactions and less machines!”
Tarlika continued to help patients throughout Covid-19: “The pandemic was a surreal time. All our nurses continued to support cancer patients and our centre was still able to offer support, albeit virtually. Some patients were worried about attending appointments for diagnostic scans, etc. but as a team, we continued as close to normal as possible.
“And cancer patients are still worried and still having to be careful. Long periods of shielding have caused feelings of isolation and fear. Our service users are being quite cautious as you just don’t know what is around the corner with this pandemic.
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Tarlika explained what it takes to offer unstinting cancer support for over two decades: “My average day is running around! I have a lot of energy thankfully! But it’s such a rewarding and privileged position – the trust people have in me and the courage that they show. Finding out how I can help them, answering their questions, signposting to key support services, or simply offering them a friendly ear…sometimes people just need to talk. It’s an honour that people feel they can unburden themselves to me, so they feel lighter and less afraid.
“And it can also be about supporting hospital staff too…if they’ve had a particularly sad case. An average day always involves a lot of chats over a cuppa or a coffee!”
Tarlika on her greatest career achievement: “The highlight of my career has been to set up a second service at St Helier Hospital, despite all the challenges. We started with just one small room, but we have now grown to a small centre. This was only possible because of the exceptional support of one nurse – she used to say to me: “I’ve given you a finger, and you’ve taken a whole hand!”. It’s crucial that deprived areas have access to support too though – I am still working on trying to get that centre open 5 days a week. I would love to achieve that goal before I retire. And a bigger venue too!
“Marking over 21 years at the centre, and 43 years within the NHS, feels like quite the milestone. I would like to thank all the colleagues and volunteers I’ve worked with over the years for their support. It has been a huge privilege to help so many patients and their loved ones.”
The Macmillan Butterfly Centre at Epsom Hospital is open Monday to Friday, between 9.30am and 4.30pm (excluding Bank Holidays). The Cancer Information and Support Centre at St Helier Hospital is open on Thursday and Friday; between 9.30am and 4.30pm (excluding Bank Holidays). You can contact the centres on: 01372 735456 (Epsom Hospital) and 020 8296 4730 (St Helier Hospital).