A cancer diagnosis shaped the life of Sophie McCallum and that of people she now works with
In 2004 14-year-old Sophie McCallum was on tour with her choir when she discovered a lump the size of a ping-pong ball on her collarbone. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and had seven months of chemotherapy before being declared officially in remission.
In February of this year Ms McCallum was able to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of being cancer free. It also marks the second year since she started working on the haematology ward at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and began helping patients going through similar experiences to her own.
Alongside luck, she claims it was determination that helped her through the process of chemotherapy, missing school and attending various hospital appointments: “I was determined not to let it ruin my life,” she says.
Ms McCallum only spent one night in hospital before returning back to secondary school. On her return, she wrote a letter to the students in her class explaining her absence. To avoid too much attention, she took a humorous tone explaining how her illness “wasn’t contagious”.
“When someone becomes ill, they become the focus,” she says. “I told them to treat me the same.” It’s also something she keeps in mind when advising the younger patients on the ward.
In the months after her diagnosis, Ms McCallum found it difficult to get into a routine of school and work while also having treatment. That had a domino effect throughout secondary school and into college until she decided to drop out and take on various restaurant jobs.
“It took a long time to get back to normal after the illness,” she explains.
While working in a care home, she discovered her interest in nursing and sought advice from her manager on how to pursue it. With staff support, she enrolled in her first higher education course. In 2013, Ms McCallum qualified as a chemotherapy nurse before moving to Barts.
It wasn’t always easy. “It was very different to how I thought it was going to be. So stressful, so hard. But, I was making people feel better and I can still achieve that after working at the nursing home. I love it, ” she says.
Working on the ward has been tough but she feels her ability to understand helps her connect with patients. She says it’s not always appropriate to tell her story but it can be a good way to encourage patients to be open with her.
“It was very different to how I thought it was going to be. So stressful, so hard. But, I was making people feel better and I can still achieve that after working at the nursing home. I love it, ”
Ms McCallum remembers feeling like she was losing her identity during chemotherapy when she started losing her hair. She recalled these feelings and used her own experience to provide advice to a teenage patient in a similar situation. She suggested he shave his hair into a mohawk as she did to make losing his hair easier.
“I kept telling him to do it as he had long hair. One day I walked into the ward and he’d done it. I said ‘Oh my God you did it’ and he said ‘I love it’”.
She remembers how, as patient, “just talking” made her feel much better - and while working at Barts she has learned the importance of communicating to form strong relationships with her patients and staff. On her ward, a 50-year-old patient was sent home to receive extra care; Ms McCallum made it her main concern to keep his family updated throughout the process.
“A month later his daughter got in contact to say they were happy with the care. It’s important to just talk with the patient to help them understand,” she says.
Looking back to when she started her course, she’s glad she pursued nursing despite moments of doubt. With current staff shortages she sometimes feels overwhelmed but then remembers why she started nursing in the first place - for her patients. She knows first hand just how important nurses are in helping patients with cancer.
“There is a massive shortage of nurses right now. People: don’t give up, pursue it, you’ll be needed, people are always going to need nurses. So, if you really want to do it, stick with it,” she says.
● On 25 July, Sophie McCallum will be participating in Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life Pretty Muddy run in London to help raise money for the charity. If you would like to help Sophie reach her £200 target, visit: www.justgiving.com/sophieandoliviamccallum/