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Cancer nurses need the recognition they deserve

More needs to done to retain the valuable nurses caring for people who have cancer

More needs to done to retain the valuable nurses caring for people who have cancer, writes Karen Roberts

They are ‘everything'. That is how three people with cancer recently described their Macmillan nurses to me.

These dedicated nurses had become ‘everything’ to the people they cared for – a source of information, advice and support.


Macmillan nurses are a source of information, advice and support for patients.
Picture: Tim George

The testimonies of people living with cancer demonstrate the crucial impact of the right support from the right professionals at the right time. Yet, increasingly the public are concerned that support is not as strong it should be. According to Macmillan’s One Size Doesn’t Fit All report, one in five people think that coordinated care is the most important factor to ensure people with cancer get the care they need.

However, by contrast, 43% of people worry that cancer care will not be world class in five years’ time. Given the number of people living with cancer in the UK will rise to four million by 2030, supporting the people who look after them has never been a more pressing issue. 

Yet the sad truth is that many nurses, whether in the NHS or wider health and care sector, are increasingly feeling disillusioned and driven from the profession due to under-investment, resulting in heavier workloads and a lack of flexibility to allow a good work-life balance. It is worrying that the number of cancer nurses is far short of the level needed to meet the needs of a growing population.

We cannot diagnose cancer earlier or provide world-class care and support without enough doctors, nurses and support staff with the right skills to deliver this on the ground. Reported shortages in critical areas of cancer care and waiting times being regularly breached are warning signs that the workforce is already significantly strained. 

What needs to happen

Urgent action needs to be taken to increase the number of nurses entering the workforce, including by increasing training places and agreeing new funding support options for students. This is essential to help retain staff and to ensure patients are receiving the best possible care.

Workforce gaps should be plugged by supporting front-line staff to carve out time in their schedules to undertake continuous professional development, without fearing that their absence might compromise patients’ safety.

There also needs to be recognition of the vital role NHS trusts play in ensuring continuing professional development, including ensuring staff have help with course fees and study leave. In doing so, you give people the opportunity to learn vital new skills and pave the way for career progression.

Improvements to e-rostering processes to ensure flexibility, safe levels of staffing and reduced waiting times for patients, would also help to improve professionals’ work-life balance.

In addition, setting up schemes such as Retire and Return offers people the opportunity to step back from the demanding pace of the front line into skilled roles that offer more flexibility, and shows that we value our most experienced staff.

'If we cannot create a working environment that supports nurses to carry out incredibly demanding jobs, we cannot expect world-class cancer care in this country'

If we cannot create a working environment that supports nurses to carry out incredibly demanding jobs, we cannot expect world-class cancer care in this country. Our nursing staff need to be afforded the same respect as they treat patients with every single day.

Valued support

That’s why supporting our workforce is so important and why it is so crucial that the government, NHS and key players in the health sector fund and deliver a serious strategy for the cancer workforce. Every day we waste is another day lost for people living with cancer whose anxiety is heightened thanks to delays and disconnected care.

This is about people – by making sure that nurses are supported and valued, they can deliver the best possible care to patients. 

As a result we will be able to retain staff for longer and make recruitment easier, but also work towards ensuring that the personalised care, which we know makes such a difference, is truly available for all.

Further information

Macmillan Cancer Support (2018) One Size Doesn’t Fit All. Why We Need to Make Cancer Care in the NHS More Personal


About the author

Karen Roberts is chief of nursing and allied health professionals at Macmillan Cancer Support

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