Dying cancer patients left to 'face the abyss alone' amid nurse shortages

Laura Donnelly
Around 36,000 women have incurable breast cancer  - PA

Women with incurable breast cancer are being abandoned to "face the abyss" alone because almost half of hospitals don't have specialist nurses, a new report warns.

The first ever study of provision of specialist nursing for incurable breast cancer found the vast majority of NHS trusts and health boards say they were short of expert staff to provide care and support.

Charity Breast Cancer Care said their findings were “worrying” and showed “outrageous” failings in care of the most vulnerable.

Advanced cancer occurs when breast cancer cells spread from the breast to other parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs and brain.

It is incurable but some women can live for several years with treatment.

There are an estimated 36,000 people living with this type of secondary breast cancer in the UK and each year around 11,600 die from the disease.

The study found 42 per cent of organisations did not provide specialist nursing care for those with incurable breast cancer.  And 76 per cent of NHS hospitals and health boards across England, Scotland and Wales said there were not enough staff to provide such care.

Some 95 per cent of women first diagnosed with breast cancer are given access to a named clinical nurse specialist. But only 21 per cent of organisations had a specialist nurse dedicated to those whose cancer has advanced and is incurable.

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Patient Laura Ashurst, 49, from North Yorkshire, has had incurable advanced cancer for a decade.

She said: “Being told I had incurable secondary breast cancer felt like going into the abyss. It is hugely isolating. What I need most is emotional and psychological support, yet I still don’t have a specialist nurse.

No one I can ring for day-to-day support or questions, or to point me in the right direction for other information. I’ve had to find my own way through the dark."

Samia al Qadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, said: "These findings highlight the worrying truth - care for people with incurable secondary breast cancer is not good enough.

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"Our survey revealed nurses often lack crucial training to coordinate the complex care and treatment, help people manage often debilitating pain or have conversations about dying.

"And it is outrageous that even though specialist nursing can dramatically improve quality of life for women and men with incurable breast cancer, so many do not have a nurse they can count on for essential support."

An NHS England spokesman said: “Evidence shows that access to a Cancer Nurse Specialist or other key worker supports a positive patient experience.

"We are working closely with others across the NHS to agree the best way to widen access to specialist support for all people living with cancer, including those living with secondary breast cancer, as part of our plans to transform cancer services across the board.”


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