Clare John has been a nurse for 27 years. There were a few formative experiences that led her down the path of breast care nursing.
When Clare was a teenager, a close family member had breast cancer and Clare was part of her support team. As a nursing student, she was in a palliative care setting and developed a passion for oncology. And as a nurse in Dublin in the 90s, she met one of the very first breast care nurses.
“I loved the idea of what she was about. When I went to the Mater, there were no breast care nurse positions and it took about 10 years to get funding, so I sort of did it on my own back,” she says.
“I’d take patients on the ward aside in a group setting and go through mastectomy care, information on prostheses and followed up by phone.
“We see about 600 newly diagnosed patients a year and it took 10 years to realise it was a worthwhile position to fund. Once we received funding, we were really well supported by the multidisciplinary team.”
When funding to become a McGrath Breast Care Nurse came in, Clare was even more supported.
“It made it easier to improve the experience of people going through breast cancer treatment,” she says.
“The support of the McGrath Foundation meant there was a greater ability to dedicate more time to each individual, to give them greater continuity of care from diagnosis through treatment and onto wellness.”
“It’s a very fulfilling position to see their vulnerability at the beginning, the strength they show through treatment and the personal growth after a year or two when they’re out the other end.”
Clare sees the role of a McGrath Breast Care Nurse as ensuring patients “go through treatment and come out the other end as well as can be.”
“We offer personalised, supportive care and evidence-based information that’s understandable to the individual,” she says.
Breast cancer in men makes up less than one per cent of all cancer and Clare sees two or three men a year with it.
“It’s not very common and as a result, there are often misdiagnoses or lack of awareness in the general public that men can get it and sometimes they present late. Men are less inclined to seek medical attention,” she says.
“The treatment for men is the same as that for women. There’s probably a bit of stigma around men who undergo a mastectomy and hormone-blocking agents because they end up with menopausal symptoms similar to women.”
“Being diagnosed with cancer in a female-dominated area is an extra challenge for these guys, it adds to the complexities of the diagnosis. Men are usually slow to seek psychological care or attend support groups and in general, they’re more isolated than women going through it.”
Clare says she learnt a lot while helping Scott.
“Scott was fantastic. He was very evidence-based and receptive to information and support,” she says.
“We developed a really good rapport, it was refreshing to have a change in scenery and get a male perspective. You learn a lot from patients, he certainly taught me a lot about dealing with men and breast cancer”.
“It was a very busy time in his life. He was the main breadwinner, he had four young kids and life was hectic. He was trying to navigate appointments, treatment and his identity in the investment banking world. It can be quite isolating for guys and I ensured he was emotionally supported while managing all of that.”
While the focus is on women, Clare emphasises that anything which increases the awareness of breast cancer in men is crucial.
“The symptoms are easy to detect, it usually presents as a lump behind the nipple,” she says.
“For men to have that in mind is important. But also, we need an increase in awareness that if a man you know is diagnosed with breast cancer that you understand how to reach out and talk to them. It can be isolating and a lonely time for some guys. They need support as much as women do, even though they may be less likely to seek it.”
The support of a McGrath Breast Care Nurse is a free service, no matter where you live. To find your nearest McGrath Breast Care Nurse, visit mcgrathfoundation.com.au/get-support/find-a-nurse.