Dr. Natalie Doyle, Nurse Director for Patient Experience at the Royal Marsden Hospital
I wouldn’t say that I’m a natural nurse, if there is such a thing – I certainly wasn’t the young girl who always dreamed of being a nurse. In fact, my career choice was made by my mother! However, I think it would be fair to say that she made a good decision and, in 1981, I entered nurse training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Barts) in London. When I reflect now on my professional life, I can clearly see a couple of experiences that stand out and have shaped the course of my career.
My first staff nurse post was on the children’s cancer ward at Barts and it was here that I met many children and their families who were directly confronted with a life-threatening illness. Whilst this work was challenging and emotional it was always rewarding and usually a lot of fun! I have so many precious memories of those days and I know my attitude to life was shaped by what I witnessed, particularly the courage and compassion. As part of my job, I had an opportunity to work in the long-term follow-up clinic for those who had completed their cancer treatment and it was here that I met many young people some of who were a similar age to me. The common factor was the experience of cancer had radically changed their lives and not always in obvious ways. How different yet how similar their lives were to my own. This experience, or my first ‘light bulb moment’, really opened my eyes to the long-term consequences of a cancer diagnosis and treatment for the young person themselves, their family, and their friends.
From that moment, I was drawn to aspects of nursing that specifically focus on person-centred care and what happens to people when they are not in the protective bubble of the hospital. I was particularly interested in how people live their lives following a diagnosis of cancer and how they cope with its physical, psychological, and practical consequences.
Many years later, in 1996, I started at the Royal Marsden Hospital and, in my first placement on the rehabilitation ward, I met adults learning to adjust their lives to accommodate the changes their bodies incurred with cancer treatment. Some needed to learn to walk again, to talk again, manage stomas and for some, it was the psychological adjustment to a changed future. It was here that my ‘light bulb’ moment from earlier in my career was reignited. From that point onwards I have focussed all my academic and professional work towards the support of people living with and beyond cancer.
I could see that, regardless of the outcome of treatment, the experience of cancer always exacted a price and that acknowledgement and support for people was essential. Consequently, I collaborated with colleagues from a variety of different organisations and professions to raise the profile of this less appreciated aspect of cancer care to the point that it is now widely recognised as an integral part of the cancer experience. There will always be more work to do, of course –and I continually try to play my part to acknowledge the uniqueness of each individual cancer experience. Such as referring to ‘people with cancer’ rather than using the more impersonal term ‘cancer patients’ as I really believe that semantics can influence people’s attitudes and experience in powerful ways.
My ‘light bulb moments’ have influenced the course of my career and my life as I try to focus on the entirety of people’s experience rather than just the treatment of their disease. I am motivated by the maxim ‘what matters to you? not what’s the matter with you?’ Nowadays, in my role, formerly as the Nurse Consultant for Living With and Beyond Cancer, and now as the Nurse Director for Patient Experience at the Royal Marsden Hospital, I use whatever platforms I have to emphasize the point that cancer is a long term condition and that the end of treatment isn’t always the end of the story.