As Karen Roberts begins her new post at Macmillan, she brings with her both a 30-year career in oncology nursing and the recent experience of her husband’s death from cancer. Claire Read finds out how each will shape her approach to the role.
It was only two months into her new post as Macmillan’s chief of nursing and allied health professionals (AHPs) that Karen Roberts’ life was turned upside down by a cancer diagnosis.
It was July 2017 and her husband – who was 54, and had been fit and well and experiencing no symptoms – was told he had pancreatic cancer. He died just eight weeks later.
Ms Roberts admits now that there were times when she wondered whether she would be able to go back to work. However, her husband had made clear he wanted her to do just that.
“He said to me: ‘You’ve got experiences on both sides of this now, Karen – both the professional and the more personal. You have to take this and turn something tragic into something positive’.”
The post at Macmillan is a new one, created in recognition of the contribution nurses and AHPs make to cancer care. Ms Roberts sees her job as being the link between the charity’s senior team and “the nurses who are working at the sharp end of care”.
“I think that those transition points are hugely important, and I don’t think nurses are always very good at recognising them”
It is an environment with which she’s familiar. After qualifying in 1988 and starting her career as a hospice nurse, she moved to hospital-based roles, and spent some time combining clinical practice with academia.
She was advised to study for a PhD by a renowned surgeon – “the scariest man I’ve ever worked with” – who, when faced with her doubt in her own academic abilities, retorted: “I’ve got junior doctors working with me who aren’t as bright and committed as you, of course you can do a PhD.”
In her current role, her focus is on how nurses and AHPs can make life better for patients with cancer. An area of particular interest is care for the growing number of individuals whose illness may not be curable but is treatable.
It’s a group with which Ms Roberts first closely worked in her role as a Macmillan gynaecological cancer nurse.
“If I think about some of the ladies with ovarian cancer who I had the privilege of caring for, they have lived very well for many years with points in time where they have relapsed, and had to go on another stage of treatment. But in between they’ve got back to their normal daily life.”
A desire to help people deal with that kind of uncertainty, and live well in the moment, drove Ms Roberts to study mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) while working in her nurse consultant role.
“I set up mindfulness and CBT programmes for women who were recovering from gynaecological cancer, or who were adjusting to relapse and living with the knowledge that their treatment was going to be life limiting.”
“Remember that we have the privilege of working with people at the most vulnerable time of their life”
Her interest in such patients has taken on an added dimension in the aftermath of her husband’s illness, which they knew from the outset was treatable but not curable.
The initial aim of the treatment he received was to get him well enough for chemotherapy, but the aggressive nature of the cancer meant that involved a whole host of invasive procedures – procedures he quickly decided he didn’t want.
“He decided that he wanted to spend the time he had in a good way with me and the boys, rather than with attempts to get him fit enough for treatment – attempts that ultimately he could die of,” explains Ms Roberts.
It was what she refers to as a transition point, from active to palliative care at end of life, and it’s one she fears is often poorly managed.
“My husband actually instigated that conversation with the consultant. He was a surgeon, and he had insight. I think that those transition points are hugely important, and I don’t think nurses are always very good at recognising them, or medics in acute care.”
It’s one way in which her recent personal experience seems likely to shape her approach to her new role. But it has also shaped her approach to nursing more generally, as well as the advice she would give to colleagues who are at an earlier stage in their careers.
“Remember that we have the privilege of working with people at the most vulnerable time of their life,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether they have cancer, or COPD, or diabetes – they are at their most vulnerable point. And so are their families. Being able to support them is a privilege.
“And never lose sight of the fact that it could be you [who needs that support] one of these days,” she adds. “It has been for me.”