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How Belfast woman Liz has helped thousands of NI people living with cancer

Cancer Focus NI's head of care services and mum-of-one Liz Atkinson tells Helen Carson why she hopes her remarkable 40-year career has been about letting people know it's possible to make a 'bad situation less bad'

For almost 40 years now Cancer Focus Northern Ireland's head of care services Liz Atkinson has ensured patient wellbeing is at the heart of everything that she does. The north Belfast mother-of-one has devoted her entire career - from her early days as a haematology nurse, when she developed an interest in blood cancers to her last 12 years with Cancer Focus NI - to caring for the emotional, psychological and physical needs of thousands of cancer patients and their families.

Her pivotal role at Cancer Focus NI has seen her develop new, and strengthen already existing services, to support cancer patients during one of the most traumatic times of their lives.

The services she has developed which have made a huge difference to those who have availed of them include the Family Support Service, aimed at children and young people when a mum, dad or grandparent has cancer, a volunteer driver service for patients attending hospital appointments and the Sing for Life choir (a partnership with the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast), which has a membership of up to 140 people.

In recognition of her tireless work caring for cancer patients and their families, Liz was awarded an MBE in the New Year's Honours List and will travel to Buckingham Palace on March 6 to receive her accolade.

"I'm very excited and overwhelmed by it all, but also deeply humbled," says Liz. "I never expected to receive an award like this for doing a job that I love and that I get paid to do.

"Throughout my career I have put patient care at the core of everything I do. I've taken my lead from the patients when I've developed new services. Everything I've done has been inspired by what they want and need and is all evidence-based.

"From the early days when I trained as a cancer nurse at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, I loved my work. Working with cancer patients, I really felt like I was making a difference. You get to know your patients very well and build up a relationship with them. You also get to know their families as well."

Liz, who turns 60 later this year, trained as a nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, starting in May 1977. When she qualified as a staff nurse, she went to work in haematology, dealing with blood conditions like anaemia and blood cancers. She worked there for about 18 months before relocating to London to train as a cancer nurse at the Royal Marsden.

At that time there was nowhere in Northern Ireland to train as a specialist cancer nurse and Liz knew for sure that's what she wanted to do. Hearing that plans were in the pipeline to open a hospice in Northern Ireland, Liz made a few enquiries and was told that they would be soon looking for staff, particularly those with community experience.

She undertook a course in district nurse training at the University of Ulster and then worked as a district nursing sister in east Belfast for 18 months.

When the Northern Ireland Hospice opened, Liz applied for a job there and got the first ward sister post. This role saw her help commission the building, set up services and appoint staff.

Liz rose through the ranks at the hospice, progressing from ward sister to assistant nursing director to nursing director and deputy chief executive.

After 19 years, Liz decided to move on, taking up a new post with Action Cancer, managing patient care. From there, she moved to Marie Curie as day therapy and outpatients manager. "That was great because it brought me right back to the patients again," she says. "As ward sister in the hospice, I was close to the patients but as I moved up, there was less contact.

"When the job for head of care services came up at Cancer Focus NI, I knew straight away it was the right job for me."

A number of support services were already in place at the time Liz took over the reins at care services, including counselling, a helpline and a part-time art therapist. Liz immediately began developing a new range of services, all intended to make life easier for cancer patients from diagnosis to end of life.

"When you are diagnosed with cancer your life is turned upside down. That's what patients tell me," she says. "Often people automatically think this means end of life even though we know many people respond to treatment and live on.

"That initial diagnosis time, however, is very traumatic. Support services try and find a way to help people at that crisis time, to assist them as they work out what's right for them, to be alongside them and their families. No one service is going to suit everyone. Some may like counselling, others may opt for art therapy.

"I also brought in the family support service, that I developed because of everything I learned through my hospice work. If a significant adult with young children is diagnosed with cancer, how do you tell the kids? When do you tell them? It's very difficult for a young mum to tell her seven-year-old child she is going to die from bowel cancer.

"That service has now grown so much, that it is recognised, not just in Northern Ireland but nationally as well. Last year, 340 children availed of it and 180 families. In total, up to 5,500 people around Northern Ireland have access to all our services each year across the board. And that doesn't include the extensive cancer prevention work that Cancer Focus NI does."

Other services Liz and her small team look after are a bra fitting service, which she has rolled out beyond Belfast and Derry, to Enniskillen, Omagh, Ballymoney, Newry and soon to be introduced in Downpatrick, a beauty service which features nail bars at Craigavon and Belfast City Hospital chemotherapy units and the Zest for Life life-coaching programme, that seeks to put patients back on the road to a normal life after treatment.

"Patients say that end of treatment can be difficult," she said. "They put a bottle of champagne in the fridge to celebrate, but when treatment ends they can't believe how alone and frightened they feel. They are lost without their crutch of hospital appointments. Every sore shoulder or sniffle can frighten them. It's like living with a shadow on your shoulder.

"This six-week programme, facilitated by trained Cancer Focus NI counsellors, helps people to make decisions for themselves again, gives them back their role in life and helps to restore control and confidence. Life may never be the same again but there can be a new kind of normal."

Liz, whose daughter Rachel is studying acting at university in Bristol, says she is equally proud of all her achievements. She has joined the Sing For Life choir herself and says it's open to anyone whose lives have been touched by cancer in some way, regardless of whether or not they can really sing.

"Every voice counts," she says. "We've built up a lovely, supportive community with our choir and have reached quite a high singing level now. We've performed all over the place - the Grand Opera House, Armagh Planetarium and as part of Culture Night for the past three years.

"There is evidence about the benefits of music and singing in a choir and what we've found is that being part of this choir has really helped build confidence and self-esteem. In fact, many of our members have told me that of all the therapies and services they've had access to, the choir was the one that helped them turns their lives around."

After four decades of caring for cancer patients, Liz is set to retire this year. She'd already decided to step away when she was nominated for a Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award - and won, in the health category. That accolade, she says, was a complete surprise and she was delighted to win. Then to be told she was being awarded an MBE, just months before her retirement, was the icing on the cake.

Although she'll be sad to leave her patients, their families and her colleagues at Cancer Focus NI, without whom she says she would never have received her MBE, she's looking forward to retirement. A keen traveller, she plans to see even more of the world with husband Adrian and to take piano lessons, something she has always wanted to do.

As she prepares for her retirement, she says she feels honoured to have worked with cancer patients for so long and says it is because of them, in a way, that she is handing over the reins to someone else.

"The most important focus for me throughout my career has been the patients and their families," she says. "I feel they've given me more than I've given them over the years. I learned so much about life and about myself from them. They've taught me how to be the person I am. It's probably because of those patients that I'm retiring at 60. They've taught me that life is there to enjoy. None of us know how much time left we have.

"I hope, that in some small way, I have helped them along the way, to make a bad situation less bad. That's a phrase I often use for cancer patients. None of us can take it away from them, but hopefully we can help them cope through such a hard time.

"I've sat with people as they told their children that their mum or dad has cancer. That was difficult. But it was also a great privilege to be trusted like that.

"That's what my work here at Cancer Focus Northern Ireland has been, a great privilege."

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