Lights, camera, accuracy

In June 2014, Prostate Cancer UK was approached with some exciting news: BBC soap EastEnders had been in touch, asking us to provide clinical support for a new prostate cancer storyline.

Intrigued, I agreed to help. This meant signing a confidentiality agreement, so I had to keep to myself what turned out to be a number of exciting experiences, even though I was bursting to share everything.

My first involvement was a telephone call with a researcher. I discovered the storyline concerned the character Stan Carter, played by Timothy West, who would soon be revealing to his family that he had advanced prostate cancer. The researcher gave me a timeline, which provided the back story, details of the ‘big reveal’ and the journey that Stan and his family would go on. The EastEnders team had pulled together their plans for Stan and his illness, and I was asked to comment.

First and foremost, they had Stan’s PSA (prostate specific antigen) test down as a urine sample, which I swiftly changed to a blood test.

My involvement stepped up a gear from mid-August, and continued through to January 2015 while I was regularly sent scripts to fact-check. I advised the writers on medications, likely emotional responses to certain information, which doctors were responsible for what, how radiotherapy was given, and what equipment Stan might require to be nursed at home.

In December last year, I had several discussions with the set designer of Stan’s hospital ward. For these scenes, Stan was in hospital with spinal cord compression caused by his metastatic bone disease, and they wanted to know things like whether he would be on oxygen, whether he would have a drip, and would he be in pain?

I was delighted to be asked to spend a day on set at the BBC studios in Elstree to provide advice while these scenes were shot. I arrived feeling rather nervous, and was collected by a runner who escorted me to the studio. The environment was not as I expected – I entered a huge ‘warehouse’ which was divided into different sets, with cables, wires, bright lights and cameras everywhere.

Once I settled into the surroundings, I was met by the set designer who took me into the ‘ward’. We examined the equipment, bedding, drug trolley and nurses’ station to make sure they looked realistic. I was pleased to see that they had followed my advice and hired a pressure relieving mattress for Stan’s bed. They were due to film a scene where nurse Sonia, played by Natalie Cassidy, has to empty the catheter bag. I was called to show Natalie how to do this and advised her on wearing gloves and an apron. She was lovely, and took to the task very well for someone who is not a trained nurse.

Other than that I did not have much opportunity to chat with the actors once they arrived on set, as the day was pretty full-on. The cast work incredibly hard – I hadn’t realised how many times they filmed each scene before they were happy with the result. However, I did manage to have a short conversation with Timothy West who played Stan. He was very polite and well spoken – quite different from the character he played, of course.

In the more recent scenes leading up to his death, Stan’s condition deteriorated and he was transferred to a hospice for his final days. Before I joined Prostate Cancer UK, I had spent ten years working in hospices, and it was great to be able to use this experience to help make this part of the storyline authentic.

I was asked to go back to the EastEnders set for a final day of on-set support. On this occasion, I sat alongside the director with a headset on to watch the hospice episode being filmed. These were dramatically emotional scenes, and once again I was struck by how hard the actors worked, amazed at their intensity.

Last week, viewers of EastEnders saw Stan pass away from his illness. Over the last weeks and months, it had been incredibly rewarding to watch the shows as they aired, and see the impact of my input into the show. The storyline has prompted a large amount of discussion about prostate cancer on social media and in the press, and hopefully on the sofas of many homes, raising much-needed awareness of the disease.

This whole experience has added a new dimension to my portfolio – one that I would not have had the opportunity to participate in without Prostate Cancer UK. Working as clinical lead for a national charity has given me the chance to expand my nursing expertise and use my knowledge in new ways, showing how nursing can provide a wide range of benefits and rewarding opportunities in addition to the core role of direct patient care in clinical environments.

Karen SumpterAbout the author

Karen Sumpter is clinical lead for Prostate Cancer UK