Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer

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“I wanted to be more than “Nanny” in my retirement”

In today’s post Sherry, a peer volunteer advocate with Sandwell Advocacy’s Sandwell Cancer Older People Advocacy (SCOPA) project, tells us her volunteering story:

My name is Sherry and I have been a volunteer at Sandwell Advocacy since March 2015.  I was a staff nurse for over 45 years and when I retired in 2014 I was adamant I was going to do something productive with my time.  I have grandchildren who I adore but having had a very demanding career I wanted to be more than “Nanny” in my retirement.  I trained in Chester then worked in plastic surgery, something I thoroughly enjoyed. My final working years were spent as an ophthalmic nurse in Sandwell. Shortly before I retired I was diagnosed with breast cancer, this was a shock to me as I had always attended screening and knew exactly what to look for.  I received radiotherapy and chemotherapy and continued to work throughout. I am still under surveillance and attend yearly mammograms but “Once a nurse, always a nurse” I continue to stay busy.

I met Paddy and Juanita at a Cancer wellbeing fayre hosted by the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals and they told me about the exciting new project they were working on, supporting people over the age of fifty who are affected by cancer – a perfect opportunity for me to put my skills and experience to good use.  I took part in the training and was soon partnered with a woman who had agreed to advocacy as she had some housing issues. My own experience helped me enormously as I had a good idea of what my partner was going through emotionally and I soon developed an extensive knowledge of housing policy.  Although the partnership has ended I feel I have made a very positive contribution to my partner’s journey and she knows she can come back to SCOPA if she feels she needs our help again.  With the knowledge I gained I was recently able to support one of my elderly neighbours who needed to move out of his flat whilst major work was being carried out. I wouldn’t have known about such things prior to becoming an advocate. I have also been instrumental in getting a gas supply to the flats where I live in order that I (and other tenants) can manage our heating more suitably. Overnight storage heaters are not the best if you need to adjust the temperature frequently as a result of medication. They do say you learn something new every day.



Throughout my career I had experience of advocates and their role but it has been challenging and very rewarding to be on the other side of the relationship.  My knowledge of the NHS and hospital policies has helped me no end and I have enjoyed visiting hospitals with my partner who was not confident in this environment.  I was able to ask a lot of questions on her behalf to ensure she was fully able to make informed choices.

I now have a new partnership with a husband and wife, they also have housing issues although totally different.  I have enjoyed running around for them and making phone calls to assist them in downsizing to a more manageable property. They appreciate my matter of fact approach and particularly the fact that I have time, something they haven’t always got.

I haven’t limited my volunteering to advocacy practice, I have joined the Local Cancer Champion Board as I feel I have professional experience which will benefit the project. I have also ventured down to Vauxhall in London with Juanita, the volunteer coordinator, to attend a National Champions Board meeting at Macmillan HQ – that was a long and tiring day but I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet with other champions and staff on the programme.  I have taken part in the national evaluation of the Cancer, Older People and Advocacy Programme  by BRAP and was also involved in Working Together for Change led by Helen Sanderson Associates which again drew on other aspects of my experience.


I would recommend volunteering to anyone like me who wants to give something back.  Additionally for any retired professionals who want to do something similar to what they have done as a career, this is an ideal opportunity to be part of a valued and respected team.  If anyone out there is thinking about becoming a peer advocate I would recommend you talk to someone who is volunteering and find out first-hand what it’s like, I think you will get a positive response.

Sherry, Sandwell Cancer Older People & Advocacy


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International Volunteer Day is this week

OPAAL‘s Chief Executive Kath Parson has recently spent a lot of time in conversation with some of the fabulous volunteers we have supporting the Cancer, Older People and Advocacy programme.  Since this week sees International Volunteer Day on 5th December we thought in this blog post we’d let our volunteers do the talking:

“Makes a real difference to those we support. It ticks lots of boxes for me, I wanted to continue to use skill, experience & knowledge to help others, to make a positive difference to people’s lives.”

“I want to help people affected by cancer, and am happy to help people through the ‘cancer experience’. For me it’s all about putting something back, I was well cared for and I’m aware that a lot of other people are not so fortunate.”

“Because I believe I can make a real difference, I can help people practically & personally. I have a good idea of what people are going through. I can help them with their concerns or fears for the future. I enjoy being part of a team, and I enjoy the training offered to us all.”

“I feel I can relate to my advocacy partner very well due to my own experiences. I find it useful to have something in common with my partner in addition to the cancer. I am an empathetic person, a good listener and able to support others to express their concerns & worries.”

“Want to help people affected by cancer because I feel there is a gap in services to support people personally and allowing their voice to be heard and express their own feelings, wishes & concerns. Someone to ‘be there for them’. Lonely experience for Older People Affected by Cancer.”

“I enjoy being with Cancer, Older People and Advocacy staff; like helping other people. It’s a fantastic opportunity to give something back, my Grandad was lucky, he had me. Too many people have no one to help them.”

“I want to be able to support someone in need of support at a difficult time in their lives. I have the right skills & attitude to offer this support. In doing so the reward for me will be to feel I am available to support them when they need someone.”

 “I have a disabled son and husband at home and I regard my volunteering time as my time, a time for me to give something back to support others who have no one else to help them. In return I get out of the house, meet some amazing people and am able to work closely with my fellow volunteers as part of a team. We also socialise a lot so this helps me to keep in touch with my local community. It saves me from becoming isolated due to my carer’s role.”

Many, many thanks to our volunteers who contributed these quotes.

If you are an older person who has been affected by cancer, are in one of our delivery areas and are interested in becoming a peer volunteer advocate or would like to get involved in another way, why not get in touch?

Marie McWilliams, OPAAL

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Invest in ‘well-thought-out local initiatives’ says GP

Our work in developing peer advocacy support for older people at any stage of their cancer journey has come about as a result of research by Macmillan Cancer Support into health inequalities.  Reducing health inequalities would benefit everyone.

Many GPs, including Dr David Supple in Brighton, are all too aware that ‘the UK remains blighted by a persisting health gap.’

Dr Supple wrote to The Guardian newspaper last week on the topic of opening hours for general practice surgeries. He also laments the ‘decimation of local voluntary sector support agencies.’  ‘Surely’, he asked,  ‘the large amount of funding required to increase opening hours nationally should be diverted to well-thought-out local initiatives to reduce the health divide?’

Harnessing the skills and experience of older volunteers to support their peers through the cancer journey, ensuring patients can exercise voice, choice and control and get the most from the treatment and care available to them qualifies as such an initiative in my opinion.

The support our volunteer advocates give ensures that older people need not have a more difficult experience of cancer.  People who are uncomfortable with written information can discuss their options face to face in their own time at home,  those without the confidence to voice their opinion can develop the confidence or ask their advocate to speak for them,  those unsure of their benefit entitlements will be signposted to expert help, those who are anxious will get emotional support,  those without transport will get help to find the easiest option for them, those with caring responsibilities will be able to find out about carer support.

When thinking about tackling health inequalities we sometimes focus firstly on public health initiatives and lifestyle campaigns but the work we are doing also contributes to raising life expectancy and increasing the number of years lived in  good health and with quality of life.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Cancer Advocacy

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My Road to Volunteering

From a very early age I knew I would be a nurse and I was lucky to enjoy many happy years doing a job that brought me great personal satisfaction whilst helping patients and their families through some difficult and also distressing times. My later years as a cancer services manager were less expected but equally rewarding as I was able to contribute to ensuring we provided safe services and improved patient care and experiences.




Unfortunately, I developed cancer myself a few years ago. Over a period of just over a year, I needed two major surgical procedures and a course of chemotherapy. This was a difficult time for myself and my family but I was fortunate to have the support of family and friends, as well as excellent support and care from many healthcare professionals. I understood the workings of hospitals and whilst it was very different being on the ‘other side’  it was an environment I felt relatively at home.

 Thankfully my treatment was successful and I returned to full time employment for a couple of years but despite feeling fit and well, I decided to take early retirement with the intention of doing voluntary work which would utilise my skills gained during a long career. I wanted to use my cancer experience to help other people going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. This combination led me to become involved with Gateshead Cancer Advocacy.

 Being diagnosed with cancer, living with cancer and surviving cancer can be confusing, frightening and sometimes overwhelming but I am enjoying being part of this project, and will soon be supporting people during their cancer journey .  


Anne Linnett,

Cancer Support Advocate, Gateshead Cancer Advocacy