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‘I help normalise a patient’s cancer experience for them’

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Azmina Verjee speaks to Claire Read about how she uses her own experiences to provide support to people who have been diagnosed with cancer

As the woman in front of her spoke, Azmina Verjee encountered a sentiment with which she was deeply familiar but one she had never quite heard expressed so powerfully before.

“This patient was having chemotherapy and radiotherapy, so she was seeing hospital staff pretty much every day,” remembers Ms Verjee, Macmillan Cancer information and support lead at North Middlesex University Hospital Trust. “When she was discharged, she said to me: ‘I feel like I’ve been adopted by a foster family and then one day they just kicked me out.’”

Ms Verjee offers the story of an example of the work she and her colleagues do, but also of the need for the non-clinical advice and support they can provide. It is a need that resonates strongly with her because of her own personal experience.

“I was 25 when I had to have my surgery,” she explains. “I had a full panproctocolectomy and that made my temporary ileostomy permanent.” She had been working in the City – “doing corporate finance, tax accountancy, very specialised stuff” – but surgical complications meant a lengthy recovery period.

When she became well enough to once again work, Ms Verjee decided it was time for a new career path.

“I went to Middlesex University as a mature student and studied counselling and psychotherapy, because when I was on the ward I ended up listening to all of the nurses’ problems instead of them listening to my problems,” she says with a chuckle.

“A few people said to me: ‘You’re a really good listener, why don’t you go and become a psychologist or a counsellor?’”

An interest in research followed, leading to new opportunities. “I spent six years in oncology clinical research in the NHS – everything from observational studies, genetic studies, to your full phase three randomised controlled trials of chemotherapy drug A versus chemotherapy drug B.”

During that time, she shared offices with some of the Macmillan cancer nurse specialists. It was, she jokes, jealousy over their stationery – “they always seemed to have loads of Macmillan pens and post-it notes, whereas I used to pinch biros off the junior doctors” – that made her want to work for the organisation herself; as did the educational and career development opportunities that were on offer.

An average of 12-15 people a day drop into the support centre at North Middlesex, she says. The service offers support to anyone affected by the physical, emotional or financial impact of cancer. That includes the loved ones of cancer patients as well, of course, as patients themselves.

“It’s all sorts of tumour types, and all stages of the cancer journey – so one person might be newly diagnosed, and the next person might be four years into their follow up,” explains Ms Verjee.

“Primarily, I’m giving emotional support. A lot of what I do is normalising a patient’s cancer experience for them, letting them know that no kind of thought or feeling is wrong. Obviously it’s not familiar to them because they’re having a brand new experience as a cancer patient. But I’m able not only to pick on some of my own memories, but also on the combined experience of all the patients that I’ve met and got to know since.”

And Ms Verjee says it’s impossible to underestimate how many aspects of someone’s life those feelings and worries might relate to. “In cancer, you’re dealing with a disease that doesn’t leave any part of your life untouched – whether it’s your ability to do the housework, your ability to earn money, your ability to feel like you can actually relate to your friends; there is literally nothing that cancer doesn’t somehow mess up or stir up.”

When confronted with those sorts of problems, she says, nurses can often have a tendency to feel like they need to solve them – even if they have encountered the patient via a non-cancer pathway. “But actually, especially if you’re not a specialist, it’s perfectly fine just to listen and signpost to a service like mine.”

Ms Verjee also says it’s fine to let go of concerns about whether or not you are saying the right thing: “Because so many nurses are so sensitive to their patients, I think they worry they might say the wrong thing. But patients generally are so forgiving when they know that somebody is only saying something, because it comes from their heart.”

For more information on local support to which you can signpost people affected by cancer, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/in-your-area

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