“Cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence,” is the message from Tui Ora Cancer Support Nurse, Deb Penn. “Early diagnosis and intervention is the key. Hearing you have cancer isn’t always going to mean the worst outcome,” she says.
Deb has been working as a cancer support nurse for the past two years. A registered nurse for 15 years Deb describes her job as helping people through their cancer journey. Raising awareness, education, providing clinical support and helping clients navigate the health system all come with the territory.
“I prefer to get involved with a client as soon as possible - even before they are diagnosed. If a person even suspects that they might have cancer then I want to know about it. The sooner they see a specialist and confirm what they are dealing with, the more useful I can be to them.”
Cancer is the main cause of death in New Zealand. According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), one in three of us will have some experience of cancer, either personally or through a relative or friend. It is also a major cause of hospitalisation.
“Often when people first hear that they have cancer they are in shock. They don’t take everything on board and don’t think to answer the questions they need to. This is where I can help. I attend appointments at the outpatients department and medical oncology with clients and help them make sense of the clinical language used by specialists.”
Deb receives referrals from GPs and the Taranaki District Health Board but anyone can refer to the Cancer Support Nurse. She works closely with Kaiawhina Kim Marshall when a client needs more support.
Deb says one of the biggest barriers to health for her clients is a lack of transport and health literacy. Poor lifestyle choices like smoking, drinking and poor nutrition can also contribute, directly or indirectly, to cancer. MOH statistics show that the mortality rates among Māori adults is more than 1.5 times higher than non-Māori, and that Māori are less likely to access services.
Deb says that visiting clients at home is one way to try to reverse this trend. The mobile breast screening bus that visits Waitara every two years showed a 33% increase in the amount of Māori women who were screened this year and an increase in the amount of appointments for all ethnicities overall since 2011.
“Education is so important in fighting cancer. I gave a talk to the kaumātua group in Waitara recently to raise cancer awareness. We talked about what are the causes? What are the symptoms? What do you do if you think something is wrong?
“Talking about cancer shouldn’t be a conversation killer. We should talk about it, because chances are you will be affected by it at some stage.”
Helping get the message across is the Cancer Society whose Daffodil Day annual fundraiser raises funds for research and treatments for all types of cancers. This year Daffodil Day is being celebrated on 25 August. For more information or to donate visit their website.(external link)