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Tackling future cancer workforce shortfall

As part of World Cancer Day (Saturday, 4 February), we are shining a light on the crucial, expert support our clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) provide to cancer patients and why tackling the future cancer workforce shortfall is critical.

A recent study by Macmillan Cancer Support found that 37 per cent of the current workforce is over 50 years old. By 2030, Macmillan estimates that almost 4,000 additional specialist cancer nurses will be needed across the UK to address the current shortfall.

It was identified at our Trust that all CNSs across five specialties were due for retirement within the next five years. After learning this, the Macmillan Unit team based at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds, were motivated, and inspired to create an innovative way of tackling this future workforce shortfall.

Karen McKinnon, lead cancer nurse, and her team created a bespoke 18-month programme that develops band 5 nurses who want to progress into CNS positions. Macmillan Cancer Support funding enabled recruitment to the programme, which considers academic knowledge and clinical skills requirements, and gives participants an opportunity to take on placements in different specialties to gain insight into the roles.

For Kimberly Armstrong, a urology cancer nurse specialist, and Lisa Miller, breast nurse practitioner, that was the cancer pathway.

Commenting on her reason for pursuing this pathway, Kimberly said: “A patient’s world can implode when they receive a cancer diagnosis. We make a huge difference, even if it’s in a seemingly small way, like calling a patient back about a blood test, and talking them through it. We help to take those anxieties away. I’d spoken to a patient with prostate cancer several times on the phone, and when he was due to go for a test I said, ‘I’ll come with you. It’ll be good to put a face to the voice.’ I sensed that made a big difference. It’s the patients who make this job for me.”

Clinical nurse specialists are hugely important in meeting the current, significant demand being felt across the entire health and social care system, where many patients’ treatments were delayed or disrupted due to the pandemic.

Karen said: “Nursing is undoubtedly hard work, but it is also immensely rewarding and the pathway for career development and progression is so much better than it used to be.”

She added: “Together with the patient, the specialist cancer nurse is at the very centre of what we do. As the link between doctors and other services, they are the one constant and allay the fears of cancer patients and their families, explaining processes and supporting them through their diagnosis and treatment.”

Due to this innovative work, the team won the Macmillan Professionals Excellence Awards - Innovation Excellence Award, in November 2022. Kimberly and Lisa have completed the 18-month programme for the cancer pathway, and a further two nurses are set to start the course in the spring.

As well as our clinical staff, the Macmillan Information and Support Centre provide a range of support and guidance to cancer patients, including emotional support and practical advice. You can find out more about the centre in the video below.

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Left to right: Gail Porter, Sam Hobson, Karen McKinnon, Lisa Miller and Kimberly Armstrong.

Left to right: Gail Porter, Sam Hobson, Karen McKinnon, Lisa Miller and Kimberly Armstrong.