‘A lot of my friends haven't had a Macmillan nurse; I feel so incredibly lucky’

Macmillan nurse Claire Taylor (right) and former cancer patient Natalie Woodward - Rii Schroer
Macmillan nurse Claire Taylor (right) and former cancer patient Natalie Woodward - Rii Schroer

The cancer diagnosis came as a relief. For months, Natalie had been in and out of hospital, being told she was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis, or perhaps a food allergy. Colleagues rolled their eyes when she took time off work to attend her appointments and her own frustration with the situation was reaching its peak.

At 36, no one expected that bowel cancer was the root of the East Londoner’s illness. Then in February 2019, she got the news. The diagnosis came late. Tumours had grown into her spine and pelvis.

“It was surreal,” Natalie recalls. “I didn't think this sort of thing happened, certainly not to young people. My mum had breast cancer so the disease wasn't a stranger to my life but I never thought it'd affect me. I don't think I cried. I don't think I realised how bad it was.”

The rest of 2019 was taken up with chemotherapy. Miraculously it worked, the tumours shrank. But then the cancer recurred and the tumours began growing faster than ever. Referred to the complex cancer centre at St. Mark’s hospital in Harrow, in February 2020 Natalie was offered potentially life-saving surgery.

A pelvic exenteration would essentially cut all of the tumours and everything they’d touched out of her body, but it would be extensive. Doctors told Natalie they’d need to remove her ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, uterus, vagina, rectum, anus, part of her spine and pelvic bone, a muscle in her pelvis and her left ureter (the tube which connects the kidney to the bladder.)

Natalie had been told she was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis, or perhaps a food allergy - Rii Schroer
Natalie had been told she was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis, or perhaps a food allergy - Rii Schroer

“There was a moment when I first heard what the surgery entailed that I wished they'd never saved me in the first place - my brain couldn't contemplate having this surgery,” she explains. “What will my quality of life be, do I even want to live like that? That was far worse than being diagnosed. Worse than when I was told my cancer was coming back. It was the only real chance of getting on top of the cancer, but the cost terrified me.

“Funnily enough, a couple of weeks before I learned about my recurrence, I met with a woman who became a very dear friend and whose story was similar to mine. She told me about this operation she'd had and I remember going home and saying to my partner ‘I feel so lucky in comparison - you should hear what she's had to have done.’ Three weeks later I was told I needed the same operation.”

Calm and comforting

One huge source of support was Claire, the Macmillan nurse who sat by her side during the initial consultation. “There were so many people; surgeons, nurses, radiologists, and I was terrified because I'd heard what the surgery entailed,” Natalie says. “I remember Claire being there. I remember her face and smile; the calm, comforting presence she exuded. Obviously the surgeons and radiologists did their part and talked me through the scans, but from that moment Claire was the heart of my care.”

Claire’s support gave Natalie the courage she needed to accept the surgery. “It was the will to live, to be here a bit longer,” she says. “Even in a life I didn't plan to live, it was still life. I wanted to fight for it.”

And then the pandemic struck. As the country locked down and hospital beds were hoovered up by Covid patients, Natalie found the surgery shunted back to August.

With all her appointments taking place on screens, it would have been easy for Natalie to feel like a patient number rather than a person, but Claire prevented that.

“I always knew she was just at the end of the phone or she’d be the first to respond to my emails,” explains Natalie. “Anything I was worried about, she'd talk me through. That feeling of being listened to and seen is so important when you're not able to go to face-to-face meetings. Claire was the person I could trust to have my back. If I wasn't hearing from someone, she'd get in touch and they’d get back to me. I cannot stress enough the importance of having Macmillan nurses to make you feel like you weren't being forgotten about and left to rot.”

For Claire, a Macmillan nurse who has been at St. Mark’s since 1996 and six months ago was promoted to become the charity’s chief nursing officer, this is all in a day’s work. “Helping people is its own reward,” she beams. “I get a huge amount of satisfaction from knowing that I've thoroughly listened, assessed, and addressed their needs to the best of my ability. All of us in the complex cancer team at St. Mark’s work together. I try to finish every day feeling I’ve done the best I can, as much as I can.”

Claire provided Natalie with vital support during her fight with cancer - Rii Schroer
Claire provided Natalie with vital support during her fight with cancer - Rii Schroer

Claire’s humility belies the enormity of her task. Between herself and another Macmillan nurse at St. Mark's, the caseload can be as many as 500 patients a month, all of whom require the same level of personal support, medical advice, comfort, and simple kindness.

During the lockdown, simple acts of human kindness and connection made the world of difference to patients like Natalie.

“I went into the hospital alone,” Natalie says of the day she went for her surgery. “The morning I went down to the theatre, it suddenly hit me that I hadn't been able to say goodbye to anyone. I hadn't hugged anyone; my partner or my mum and dad. They were stuck at home. I had no idea if I was going to see them again. I'll never forget waking up in intensive care and thinking ‘I'm not going to see anyone for a really long time’. Claire and my support team became my family at a time when no one was allowed to come in.”

Life-changing experience

Again, Claire says it’s all just part of the job. “I hate the idea of anybody feeling like a number in a system,” she says. “This is a life-changing experience for patients, if there's anything we can do to make it more humane through empathy and acts of kindness then we must.” She recalls bringing out her tablet to help people make video-calls to relatives, ferrying gifts and cards from the door to the patients’ beds, sneaking patients the WiFi code so they could download entertainment while bedbound.

“Recovery is pretty brutal,” Natalie explains. She was in a hospital room for nearly a month with absolutely no visitors allowed, being rolled from side to side by nurses to avoid bedsores. When she was eventually discharged, she was back in hospital within days due to a sepsis infection. “You're literally cut open from the front right round to the back. It was so tough. To have people like Claire taking care of me made the world of difference. I don't know how I'd have got through that whole process, months and months of time without her. I had so many readmissions and complications. I honestly don't know what I'd have done without her. You don't always have the strength to push and self-advocate. I didn't have my partner there or my mum who was able to do that for me, so Claire became that person who advocated for me.”

After her experiences, Natalie has begun to think about retraining as a Macmillan nurse herself - Rii Schroer
After her experiences, Natalie has begun to think about retraining as a Macmillan nurse herself - Rii Schroer

As things stand there aren’t enough Claires to go around. The latest waiting times data from NHS England shows that in August 2022, the number of people in England who saw a specialist following an urgent referral from their GP for suspected cancer hit a new high of over 255,000. Of those, more than 62,000 had to wait more than two weeks to be seen due to the backlog of cancer patients who didn’t come forward during lockdown. Current estimates suggest that the NHS in England would still need to work at a minimum of 110% capacity for a further nine months to catch up with the numbers of missing treatments.

For her part Natalie would like to make a difference for others as Claire did for her. Having reached the milestone of her 40th birthday this year, with no sign of cancer in her body, she’s begun to think about retraining as a Macmillan nurse herself.

“Every patient deserves a Claire, I don’t know what I would have done without her,” Natalie says, choking up as she speaks. “A lot of my friends haven't had a Macmillan nurse, they haven't had someone like that and they've had a completely different experience. I feel so incredibly lucky for that. It would be an honour to be the nurse for someone else that Claire was for me.”

Macmillan is one of four charities supported by this year's Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Age UK, RBLI and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927