My job

Up to the challenge

Cherith Semple, Macmillan head and neck cancer nurse specialist, was named RCN Northern Ireland Nurse of the Year 2015 recently. She speaks to Sophie Blakemore about her passion for undertaking research that informs changes in practice for the benefit of patients

Cherith Semple is not sure what inspired her to become a nurse. All she knows is that it was on her bucket list from a young age. ‘I came across one of my primary school journals recently and in it were my life ambitions: to become a nurse and travel to Australia. I’ve done both so I guess I need a new list,’ she says, laughing.

Dr Semple is a Macmillan cancer nurse specialist (CNS) at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust in Belfast, Northern Ireland (NI). She scooped the NI Nurse of the Year award in May for leading a series of initiatives that have resulted in significant improvements for patients living with head and neck cancer at local, national and international level.

After completing a PhD study exploring the factors that contribute to post-treatment psychosocial difficulties associated with head and neck cancer, Dr Semple found that patients felt most vulnerable after discharge from hospital. This feedback led to the creation of a follow-up telephone after-care service.

She has also been instrumental in redesigning the surgical follow-up clinic for patients with head and neck cancer. Using internet-enabled tablet devices, patients can record their concerns in real time, which helps Dr Semple and her colleagues to provide prompt, tailored post-treatment care.

Part of the redesign involved creating a patient leaflet on how to check for signs and symptoms of recurrence. This has helped patients to develop skills and confidence in self-surveillance, and enabled fast-track referrals to follow-up clinics when required, creating a patient-led service.

Dr Semple began her nursing career in 1991 with a four-year degree at the University of Ulster. ‘My research project in my final year was about the specialist oncology nurse’s role,’ she says, ‘so I had an interest in cancer from the beginning.’

She attributes this in part to the fact that her grandfather was having treatment for cancer at the time.

However, her first job was in the plastic and maxillofacial unit at Ulster Hospital, Belfast. ‘It was there that I was first introduced to patients having surgery for head and neck cancer. As a junior staff nurse, I saw the significant challenges and huge vulnerability many of these patients and their families experienced,’ she says.

‘The cancer and treatment often changes many of their basic functions, such as speech and swallow. It is also a visual cancer.’

Specialist role    

As a result of this experience, in 2000 Dr Semple became a Macmillan CNS in head and neck cancer. ‘I was intrigued and fascinated by this area of care, and because of the immense challenges patients were going through I felt I could make a real impact and contribute significantly to their care,’ she says.

In 2002 she was accepted for a full-time funded PhD fellowship at the University of Ulster where she began to explore the psychosocial difficulties of the disease. ‘It was a privilege to work so closely with these patients and to see what affected their quality of life.’

Since then, after returning to her CNS post at Ulster Hospital, she has worked predominantly in clinical practice but maintains some research activity, as it is this combination that gives her job satisfaction.

The research includes completing a qualitative study into the support needs of patients aged between 24 and 45 with head and neck cancer who are caring for young children, and who have different needs to ‘more traditional head and neck patients who are men in their 60s and 70s’.

Dr Semple says: ‘I am in a unique position to reflect on the needs of patients and make a difference to them through my research. I feel privileged to have that integrated approach.’

The judging panel for the RCN Nurse of the Year awards concluded that her success in combining research, education and practice is ‘truly remarkable’. She has no intention of stopping and will begin another research project in September, which aims to help staff improve support for children so they can adjust to having parents or significant others with cancer. Part of that work will involve implementing a peer group intervention programme throughout NI, to support children aged between 5 and 12 who find themselves in this position.

‘What drives me is empowering patients and ensuring they and their families get the best care at the time they require it,’ Dr Semple says. ‘I see my work as getting to the heart of clinical practice and making a difference to people’s lives.’

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