My job

60 seconds with oncology clinical nurse specialist Lorraine O’Leary

‘Every day I see how patients in cancer centres benefit from having a CNS’

‘Every day I see how patients in cancer centres benefit from having a CNS’

After training as a registered general nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, Lorraine O’Leary spent three years on a general medical oncology ward at Guy’s Hospital while completing her post-registration nursing diploma at King’s College London. In 1998 she moved to Sydney, Australia, returning to the UK two years later to take up a post in gynaecological cancer at The Royal Marsden and complete her degree in cancer nursing.

After seven years as a chemotherapy nurse at Kingston Hospital and three years as a staff nurse at St Raphael’s Hospice in Surrey, she returned to The Royal Marsden in 2011 to take up a staff nurse post in the trust’s Oak Foundation Drug Development Unit.

She has been in her current role as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) on the unit since 2016, and is currently studying for her Master’s degree in cancer nursing.


Lorraine O’Leary thinks there should be more clinical nurse specialist roles in cancer
centres to support patients who are involved in phase 1 clinical trials.

What are your main work responsibilities? 

Informing patients about the complexities of new drug trials and supporting their participation in the trials. It’s an exciting and diverse role unique to The Royal Marsden. It combines hands-on care with coordinating phase I clinical trials. I provide a holistic perspective on patient care, promoting discussion about patients’ psychological and social needs as well as their symptoms.

How did you get your job? 

I had been a staff nurse in the Oak Foundation Drug Development day care unit for five years and really enjoyed the interaction with the patients. As a CNS I get to focus more on the patient journey, so jumped at the chance when the role became available.

Who are your patients?

Patients with advanced cancer who have become untreatable with other standard therapies. By the time someone attends our ‘new patient’ clinic in Sutton, Surrey, they have already been through a lengthy journey as a cancer patient.

What do you love about your job?

Spending time with patients and helping them with all the uncertainties that come with being on a clinical trial. It is an exciting time to work in drug development; our improved understanding of the molecular basis of cancer has led to a focus on targeted therapies and we are now seeing some good quality, life-extending treatments. We are enhancing the treatments for tomorrow.

What do you find most difficult?

Managing the time I spend with patients as I always want to give more. Managing the expectations of patients on a phase I clinical trial can also be tricky at times.

What is your top priority at work?

Ensuring my patients feel supported.

How have you developed your skills in this role?

I have been fortunate to have supportive and experienced colleagues to learn from. The Royal Marsden offers great training opportunities and encourages us to develop our skills and share our experience. I also have learned an incredible amount from my patients.

What has been your most formative career experience?

This role is my favourite of my nursing career so far. We see patients of all ages, and I love that I can help them process lots of complex information at a really difficult time in their lives. When working with young mothers, who are coping with the dual demands of having cancer and having a young family to look after, knowing I can support them and help them access local services for further help is really rewarding.

If you hadn’t become a nurse, what would you have done instead?

I love keeping fit and healthy and I regularly cycle to work, so I would have become a personal trainer.

What will be your next career move?

Other phase I cancer centres do not have a CNS role, but I see every day how patients benefit from having a CNS so I would like to develop this role and see it adopted across the UK.

What is the best lesson nursing has taught you?

Be humble and grateful for what you have, and always carry rubber gloves in your pocket.

What career advice would you give your younger self?

Be patient and focus on what you enjoy in your job, rather than just doing things to move up the career ladder.

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