Top nurse Heather Monteverde demands NI 'cancer strategy'
Recently named as one of the 'top 70' NHS nurses, Heather Monteverde of Macmillan Cancer Support tells Gail Bell why the north needs a cancer strategy and how the charity aims to provide every patient with a cancer nurse specialist by 2020
IF IT seems like cancer is never out of the news, that's because there is a lot of news to bear, share and also celebrate – so says Heather Monteverde, Head of Services for Macmillan Cancer Support in Northern Ireland, who was recently named as one of 70 most 'influential' nurses in the history of the NHS.
Having received an MBE in 2012 for her service to cancer patients in Northern Ireland in 2012, Heather believes that keeping developments in the headlines is a vital part of the progressive journey for not only the 63,000 people currently living with a diagnosis in the north, but for their carers, employers, family and friends.
A former head girl of Rainey Endowed Grammar School in Magherafelt, Heather (55) has always been one to tackle a problem head-on, and she's not about to shy away from a challenge now while fighting for better services, improved treatment times and a long-awaited Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland.
"We really do need a cancer strategy – we are the only region in Britain and Ireland that doesn't have one," says the mother-of-three grown-up daughters, who is currently involved in an extensive new patient experience survey with Macmillan, the results of which are due to be released within the next few months.
"We’re also working on a plan to ensure that everyone newly diagnosed with cancer in NI has access to a Cancer Nurse Specialist by 2020, wherever they live and whatever type of cancer they have, and that will make a massive difference to people's lives."
Lack of a cancer strategy, alongside other areas of concern such as budgets and future development/centralisation of services, is hampered significantly, she believes, by not having a functioning government at Stormont.
"Things are definitely not helped by not having a health minister," says Heather, who grew up on a farm between Desertmartin and Magherafelt and describes herself as something of an "accidental nurse", only opting for nursing while in her final A-level year despite being advised by teachers to go down the university route instead.
"I was listening to the Prime Minister the other day on television, announcing more money for cancer services, lowering the national bowel screening age to 50, including boys in the HPV vaccine against cancer and thought how this was all for England and did not include us.
"We need a health minister to make decisions."
Notwithstanding such set backs, Heather – the first breast cancer specialist nurse in Northern Ireland – is encouraged by enhanced screening techniques, including the new 3D breast imaging scanner recently opened by Action Cancer in Belfast, effective, targeted treatments and the fact that more people are now beating the disease and surviving longer.
"By 2030, there's going to be 110, 000 people living with a cancer diagnosis in Northern Ireland, and that's largely because we're all living longer, as age is the biggest cancer risk," she says.
"Average survival rates have also dramatically increased – over the course of 30 years, the average figure has jumped from a couple of years to 10 and that's down to better screening programmes and picking up cancers at a much earlier stage."
It is heavy subject matter, but working with Macmillan has allowed Heather – who did eventually go to 'uni', starting a degree in Health Studies at Queen's University while working full-time with two young children – to see the bigger picture, particularly in relation to the charity's growing reach beyond the medical.
"Macmillan is well known for its nurses but, in recent years, we have become equally regarded for our benefits advisors," she tells me.
"We have helped more than 9,000 people claim around £14 million in statutory benefits and it is fantastic the difference that makes to people's quality of life.
"Living longer but living with the side effects of cancer treatment – physical, emotional or psychological – has brought its own set of new challenges and services have had to adapt accordingly.
"Cancer patients are covered under the Disability Discrimination Act and many employers – and patients – are not necessarily aware of that.
"There are training packages for businesses looking at flexibility around appointments, reasonable adjustments, phased return to work – all those type of things which all help reduce stress."
Heather has been with Macmillan for 19 years, first joining as a nurse consultant, later working as service development manager and then general manager for Northern Ireland.
Moving up the ranks necessitated a move away from patients, so Heather is particularly delighted to have been named as one of 70 pioneering nurses and midwives profiled in a special Nursing Standard publication: '70 NHS Years: A Celebration of 70 Influential Nurses and Midwives from 1948 to 2018', published to mark NHS's 70th birthday.
"I was completely overwhelmed," she says. "It really is very special to be recognised, because the more I moved into an educational role, the more I was getting more away from that face-to-face contact with people.
"It was something I missed, the instant feedback – I was only 23 when I was setting up the breast cancer service and having to break bad news and explain the options to newly diagnosed women.
"But, while I may now be developing services at a system level and influencing policy, I'm still a nurse through-and-through, even if today it's a case of helping others to help others."
Back in the early days of her career, following a four-year combined training programme at the Ulster Hospital – after which she qualified as a registered general nurse and registered sick children's nurse – Heather remembers vividly the day she decided to study oncology.
"I can take you back to the very bed in what is now the old Ulster Hospital and seeing a man with cancer whose care was not as it should have been," she recalls.
"It really stuck with me and I thought there has to be a better way of doing that. I enrolled in an oncology course at Belvoir Park Hospital in 1986 and cancer care has been my passion ever since."
As well as giving her a varied career that took her from adult surgery and children's surgery, to treating Troubles victims at the plastic surgery unit at the Ulster Hospital, to setting up the breast cancer service at the Ulster Hospital and later to the pharmaceutical industry as an oncology nurse advisor, nursing also introduced Heather to her partner.
"I met my husband, Peter, after I started nursing with his sister, so not only did I get a great career, I got a husband out of it as well," she laughs.
"He actually spotted the advert for the oncology course in the paper and pointed it out because he didn't know what oncology was at the time."
It's not easy to 'switch off' from work these days, but Macmillan's refreshingly non-judgmental (yes, she will have the occasional glass of wine) Head of Services finds a degree of relaxation in a brisk walk and also by finding her singing voice with local choir, Ballygowan Community Voices.
"It's healthy to find time for yourself," she adds, "but I try not to worry too much. My mother was a nurse and I still try to live by her best advice: Do unto others.
"Every nurse should treat every patient as if they were a member of their own family. I think that's a good yardstick for a nurse and a good yardstick for us all."
:: For information on how you can help in the drive to increase the number of cancer nurse specialists, visit Macmillan.org.uk