My job

‘I knew oncology was my passion and I have never looked back’

Lead research nurse Julie Duncan explains her passion for cancer nursing

Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust lead gastrointestinal and lymphoma research nurse Julie Duncan explains her passion for cancer nursing


What does your job involve?

As lead gastrointestinal and lymphoma research nurse for the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, I manage a large team of research nurses, specimen coordinators and assistant practitioners across the hospital’s two sites, in Chelsea and Sutton, London.

I split my time between the two teams, ensuring we deliver high-quality care to all patients who embark on clinical trials in the gastrointestinal (GI) and lymphoma unit.

I am responsible for developing the staff, and I work trust-wide on service development in research.

At least once a week I work clinically in a dedicated research clinic for GI and lymphoma patients, assessing toxicities, completing holistic needs assessments and providing support to the trial patients. This enables me to identify areas of the service we can expand or improve on.

Why did you become a nurse?

After working in various office jobs in London, none of which really inspired me, I travelled for a couple of years throughout south east Asia.

I saw a lot of impoverished countries and met people from all walks of life, and the experiences made me want to train for a career where I could care for people when they most need it. I looked into various healthcare professions and decided nursing was the one for me.

Why did you choose to specialise?

My grandmother died of lung cancer and, unfortunately, the care she received was suboptimal and distressing for our family. 

This experience inspired me to complete a student placement on a mixed oncology ward, where my mentor and all of the nurses were dedicated and inspirational. They cared for the patients the way you would care for your own family members.

I completed my final elective placement in oncology and have been in various roles throughout my career in different specialties, but all in cancer care.

What might you have done otherwise?

Following my A-levels, I studied journalism, but after travelling and seeing different aspects of the world I decided that I wanted to change track completely and train to be a nurse.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The opportunities to: develop a dynamic and forward-thinking team across two sites; work with a team of research professionals; be involved in ground-breaking research studies that could become the gold standard in treatment options for patients with GI cancer and lymphoma.

I have a team of supportive consultants, who are innovative and enthusiastic to embrace changes in staff development and nurse-led initiatives.

What are the challenges for cancer nursing practice in the 21st century?

Ensuring that we keep up to date with, and well informed about, the fast moving world of cancer research.

This could be challenging because new cancer drugs and research protocols are always being developed. For example, there is a wide range of genomic testing being undertaken on patients’ blood and tissues to identify treatments that could benefit them.

Cancer nurses need to be able to discuss the translational aspects of these trials as well as the potential side effects of novel treatments with their patients.

It can be challenging to retain all of this information because, as the gold standard treatments evolve and improve through further research, it is constantly being developed.

Outside work what do you enjoy doing?

I have a young son so balancing working full-time and home life is challenging. I enjoy reading and swimming, socialising with friends, and doing meditation and yoga classes for relaxation.

What advice would you give a newly qualified nurse in your field?

If you know the area you would like to specialise in after qualifying, go for it. Many people advised me to try different specialisms, but I knew oncology was my passion and I have never looked back.

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