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Nurses are in a key position to reduce the number of people getting cancer

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Two weeks after the prime minister’s Commission on the Future of Nursing and Midwifery was launched in an effort to give the profession a stronger role, our interview with cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards presents a powerful illustration of how empowered nurses with enhanced skills can help transform care.

Whether it is the key role of the clinical nurse specialists, the part nurses can play in assessing risk or how their management of patients can reduce length of hospital stay, Professor Richards is clear that nurses are playing an important part in improving cancer survival rates.

The fact that more people are surviving cancer also means that nurses of all types find themselves caring for patients who have been treated for the disease. Our survey with Macmillan Cancer Support reveals that nurses are concerned that cancer survivors lack the necessary support and that they themselves do not feel sufficiently educated to provide it.

Perhaps the most worrying finding is that over one-third of those who did receive education and/or training to support cancer survivors said it did not provide them with sufficient understanding and knowledge. Those commissioning training need to take extra care - wasting nursing time and scarce funding must be avoided.

The best outcome of all, of course, would be to reduce the number of people getting cancer in the first place. It is here that nurses are perhaps in the strongest position of all to fight cancer. While the link between smoking and cancer is well understood by the public, the significant dangers created by poor diet, obesity, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption is not.

‘The healthy living message may be undermined if those giving it plainly do not follow it themselves’

Nurses interact with patients more often than any other clinician - and each of these contacts may offer an opportunity to inform or encourage and support behaviour change.

However, this mission presents another challenge to nurses. Professor Richards says: ‘It would set a very powerful message if all healthcare professionals showed the way on healthy living’.

Surveys of the nursing profession show that this is often not the case. The healthy living message may be undermined if those giving it plainly do not follow it themselves.

Nurses should reflect on this - and take the appropriate steps.

Alastair McLellan editor, Nursing Times

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