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Two years ago Tara Boyle was the driving force behind a new support centre for cancer patients in the North West... then she found she had a rare form of the disease herself

The 44-year-old from Omagh tells Stephanie Bell how her experience has given her a very personal insight into what patients are going through - and asks everyone to raise a cuppa on Macmillan's World's Biggest Coffee Morning today, which is supported by Marks & Spencer

Tara Boyle, manager of the Macmillan Support Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital
Tara Boyle, manager of the Macmillan Support Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital

In what was a cruel twist of fate the woman who was the human dynamo behind a new support centre for cancer patients in the North West faced her own shock diagnosis with the disease. Just as she was about to see the fulfilment of three years of planning for the opening of the new Macmillan Support Centre in Londonderry, Tara Boyle was coming to terms with a stomach cancer diagnosis.

Two years on and still working at the helm of the first ever purpose-built centre of its kind here, Tara says she can now fully understand the tumult of emotions patients will be experiencing as they come through the doors for the first time.

As Marks & Spencer Food stores in Northern Ireland mark 10 years in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support with a host of activities this month, Tara gives an insight into the work at the centre run by the charity in Altnagelvin Hospital.

The 44-year-old from Omagh manages the facility and oversees its day-to-day running. Her role involves developing services and is primarily patient-facing with a focus on improving their health and wellbeing by offering support in a non-clinical setting.

In a typical day Tara talks to as many as 40 people with cancer.

The centre offers a range of support services, from counselling and complementary therapies to various self-management programmes.

"I have been a Macmillan professional since 2014 when I was appointed project manager to develop the health and wellbeing campus at Altnagelvin," explains Tara.

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"I was involved right from the start and as I understood the vision for Macmillan and the Western Trust, I was able to develop the business plan to secure the funding for the centre that I now manage.

"It has been an honour to be able to take this project from inception to delivery and to now be involved in the day-to-day running of such wonderful facilities. "

Tara has had a career in management, mostly in the voluntary sector and then for the Western Health and Social Care Trust. She had been helping lay the groundwork for the new centre for three years before it opened its doors in October 2017.

Tara Boyle
Tara Boyle

In the summer of 2017, just as the building was on the cusp of finally opening its doors, she took ill and at first thought she had come down with a stomach bug.

"It was one of our busiest times as the centre was nearing completion," she recalls. "I was feeling sick and went to my GP who dismissed it as a bug. I was due to go on holidays to Portugal that week and I was worried about going away while feeling so ill.

"I flew out on the Friday and within 24 hours I knew I wasn't well enough to be there.

"You just know your own body and I felt that something wasn't right so I booked a flight home again on the Sunday morning."

Tara returned to her GP who referred her to hospital where she had a camera test on her stomach which revealed she had a tumour. She had a biopsy carried out and two weeks later wasn't prepared for the shock of being told that she had a rare form of stomach cancer.

"It all happened so quickly and within three weeks of getting the camera test I was in Belfast City Hospital having surgery.

"I was shell-shocked to be told I had cancer. You also worry for the people around you. My mum had died 18 months earlier and I lived with my dad, who was 86 at the time. I was worrying for him and for my siblings and trying to put on a brave face for everyone.

"It was an absolute shock. I was told I would have to have four fifths of my stomach removed because the tumour was of a type that wouldn't respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy."

Naturally, Tara began to dwell upon the implications of such radical surgery. She says: "I love my food and eating out so much so I was afraid I wouldn't be able to eat much anymore. I do have to eat little and often now, but thankfully I can still enjoy the same foods."

Tara was also relieved not to have to undergo any aggressive treatments after surgery.

Aware that the new cancer support centre she had worked so hard to bring about was due to open, remarkably she went back to work just three months after surgery.

With typical pragmatism, Tara says her experience is something which she feels she has been able to use within her role managing the centre.

"I did tell my story at the opening of the centre," she says. "I understand what it is like to hear those words 'you've got cancer' as I have experienced it personally.

"And I don't think you really can understand what that feels like unless you have been through it.

"Cancer is something you think is never going to happen to you. Now, having had a cancer diagnosis myself, I understand the value of the range of services that Macmillan have, right through from my Macmillan clinical nurse specialists to the Macmillan information and support manager. I was truly blessed to have them.

Tara outside at the Macmillan Support Centre at Londonderry's Altnagelvin Hospital
Tara outside at the Macmillan Support Centre at Londonderry's Altnagelvin Hospital

"When you are diagnosed you go into shock and don't really take in everything that is being said to you.

"My nurses were available on the phone in advance of the surgery to answer any questions I had and that really helped to reduce the stress and anxiety that I felt. They came to the ward afterwards and were there to help me get through the tough days.

"The Macmillan information and support manager was amazing and she reassured me on so many occasions - I don't even think she realised how important she was on my journey.

"The M&S Food fundraising events this month are so important because they help to fund these staff jobs in Macmillan."

Tara's own staff job sees her supporting patients all day, every day - and it is a role she clearly relishes even more now that she has an insight into how each of the centre's clients is feeling.

She says: "I love seeing the benefit people get from attending the centre - it makes a huge difference to them. Service users tell us that the warm and welcoming environment makes them feel very much at ease and it provides them with an escape from the clinical setting which can often be so daunting.

"Whether they are popping in for information, or just a chat and a cup of tea, people seem to really enjoy their time here.

"Every day is different here which means my role involves a variety of things, from signposting patients and their families and carers to counselling and complementary therapies, as well as the more practical things such as the Macmillan benefits service and developing services for people who come to the centre.

"My role is primarily patient-facing so one of my main responsibilities is greeting the patients and having a chat to understand how we can help them.

"It's difficult to put a number on it but I would say I can help up to 40 patients in one given day."

One of the most prevalent worries for patients is how they will cope financially after diagnosis as many of them are unable to return to work.

It is Tara's job to signpost them to the relevant support services and Macmillan works closely with a range of local charities across the Western Trust area to ensure people can access support as close to home as possible.

Tara believes society's attitude towards cancer - which for a long time was a taboo subject - has changed thanks to so many new treatments and increased survival rates.

"In the past, cancer has been a subject people avoided but people are more open to talking about it now and how to live with it," says Tara.

"Seeing the benefits that people get from the services available at the Macmillan Support Centre is heart-warming.

"I take pride in my job and want to ensure that everyone I encounter gets the same level of experience that I did. It's just so humbling to be able to help people, whenever they need you."

For information, support or just someone to talk to call 0808 8080000 or visit macmillan.org.uk

M&S food stores raise money for Macmillan

As part of its month long celebration of its partnership with Macmillan, M&S food stores are hosting a series of activities to raise funds for people living with cancer, including an in-store Wall of Support and the World's Biggest Coffee Morning which takes place today.

The Wall of Support aims to encourage customers and colleagues to share their messages of support to 'Raise a Mug' for Macmillan or a loved one.

Mug message notes are available to buy at checkouts for £1, and customers are encouraged to stick their message on the Wall of Support.

M&S stores are also inviting customers to join them for an extra special cup of coffee and slice of cake throughout September, to help them support Macmillan.

Last year, stores in Northern Ireland raised over £56,000 to support Macmillan professional roles in hospitals and within the local community, such as nurses, occupational therapists and dieticians.

Across a decade of fundraising, the company has raised over £16.3m as official partner to Macmillan's World's Biggest Coffee Morning.

All donations from M&S go towards funding Macmillan professionals like Tara who help the growing number of people living with cancer to live life as fully as they can.

In the last year alone, M&S Food raised almost £3m, enough to fund 55 Macmillan professionals for a year. An incredible £2m alone came from the World's Biggest Coffee Morning in-store events.

To get involved visit www.macmillan.org.uk/coffee and join the conversation on social media using #CoffeeMorning.

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