Advice from McGrath Breast Care Nurse Clare John

Clare has been a registered nurse since 1992 and a breast care nurse since 2007. She joined the McGrath Foundation as a McGrath Breast Care Nurse in 2018. Clare helped establish Breast Cancer Interest Group NSW and is passionate about breast cancer awareness and early detection. We sat down with Clare to get her take on COVID-19, as well as some practical tips for telehealth appointments and reassurance about the standard of care for patients during this time.


Postpone or adapt your appointment, do not cancel it

There is never a convenient time to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but these extraordinary times add so much more complexity to dealing with the disease.
My phone line has never been so busy, and it is a common theme with other healthcare workers I have spoken to, as many patients are experiencing heightened concern and anxiety. Whilst we are restricting non-essential outpatient visits, we are spending more time on the phone with patients to offer support and information. There has been a surge in telehealth as providers ensure patients can still access their services.
Our cancer support groups have moved meetings online through video conferencing and the feedback has been positive as patients are adapting to the change. Some people are sitting in the comfort of their garden or their favourite armchair, which perhaps can assist them in feeling more relaxed and at home.
Patients are encouraged to ask their doctor, nurse, or medical professional where and how meetings should take place. Often, the consultant will decide if the meeting needs to be face-to-face or not, but remember, if you feel really strongly about a face-to-face meeting, then make sure you ask for this. And if you are unsure about how to prepare or what to ask, you can always check in with your McGrath Breast Care Nurse in advance.
All urgent cancer treatment is still going ahead at this current stage; however, many screening services have been temporarily suspended. I would encourage anyone who has booked a mammogram to postpone, not cancel, their appointment and seek individual advice from their health professional if concerned.


Telehealth advice

If your appointment does need to be via telehealth, make sure you are in a quiet, distraction-free spot and set boundaries. You don’t want your kids walking in or your dog barking in the background.
Just as you would with a face-to-face appointment, I always encourage my patients to write down their questions in advance and to write down the answers during the meeting, as often discussions can be overwhelming and there is a lot to digest throughout. It is also a good idea to prioritise your questions and ask a family member or partner to sit in on the appointment or call if they are able to.
You are also able to call your McGrath Breast Care Nurse to talk about any anxiety you may have about your breast cancer or the current environment and we can help you develop strategies to manage your mental wellbeing.
Whilst telehealth is a new term, the McGrath Foundation’s telephone support line, manned by specialist McGrath Breast Care Nurses, has been in place for several years and has been incredibly effective, particularly when supporting patients in remote parts of Australia.
The hours of this Support Line have been increased so that it is now also available over the weekend, providing free support to anyone with breast cancer. The number is 1800 183 338.


You cannot deliver a hug through telehealth

We know that support networks have had to change, which is taking its toll on patients. Sadly, it means I can no longer offer a hand to hold when supporting newly diagnosed women or those dealing with bad news – you cannot deliver a hug through telehealth.
Family and friends can no longer visit the hospital or make home visits and grandparents who previously assisted with childcare often cannot look after their grandchildren. This means that when patients do need to come in for treatment, they have the added stress of trying to make alternate arrangements. Many of my patients are finding it hard to cope with the unknown as they cannot make plans and friends and family cannot offer as much support.
Whilst we continue to navigate these challenges, I encourage people to maintain contact with their loved ones, whether that be via phone, video etc. And if you know someone who is going through breast cancer, continue to offer them support. Give them a call, send them flowers, or even drop a meal on their doorstep. There has never been a better time to offer support to those in need.


Maintain breast checks

Keep up with your breast checks and get to know the normal landscape of your breast so that you can contact your GP if you notice any changes. Find out more about conducting a breast check here. Again, postpone, do not cancel, your mammogram and screening. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and you do not already have a McGrath Breast Care Nurse, you can find your closest nurse on the McGrath Foundation website or call the McGrath Breast Care Nurse Telephone Support Line on 1800 183 338.

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