A campaign, backed by The Northern Echo, to raise £1m to establish a centre of excellence for cancer patients in County Durham, has passed the £200,000 mark. PETER BARRON gives a progress report

AS a maintenance engineer, Stephen Moss works at a factory producing parts for high-tech defence systems to be delivered to the Ministry of Defence.

Now, he is fighting a personal battle after being given the “shattering” news that he is suffering from cancer.

Sitting on a bed in the crowded chemotherapy unit at the University Hospital of Durham, 63-year-old Stephen, who works for the William Cook Group at Stanhope, reflects on the moment he was given the diagnosis everyone dreads.

He had felt unwell and was sent for tests to check for what was initially thought to be colitis. MRI and CT scans followed at the start of the year and Stephen was told he had bowel cancer which had spread to his liver.

After radiotherapy at The Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, he started having chemotherapy at the Durham hospital in June.

“Since I was diagnosed, it’s really struck me how many people are affected by cancer either directly or indirectly. Every family is touched by it in some way,” says Stephen, a member of Crook Golf Club. “It affects people in different ways, but we are all in the same boat.”

Stephen has nothing but praise for the chemotherapy unit’s dedicated team of nurses, but he acknowledges the urgent need for the facilities to be upgraded.

“The staff do a great job but the space they have to work in is far too restricted and, although it’s nice to be able to talk to people who are going through the same experience, you also need privacy,” he explains.

That’s why he’s happy to voice his support for the “Excellence In Cancer Care” campaign, launched in April by the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust Charity, and supported by The Northern Echo to mark its 150th anniversary as a campaigning newspaper.

“It would make such a difference to people all over County Durham who come here for chemotherapy – to have better facilities on your doorstep would be a real bonus, for patients and staff,” he says.

“My message to anyone reading this is to please get behind the campaign and do what you can to help because it really does touch everyone.”

Beth Gibson, manager of the chemotherapy unit, is encouraged by the progress the appeal is making but the demands on her team – and the facilities in which they work – are growing all the time.

“It’s really heartening to see so many individuals responding to the appeal in all kinds of ways,” she says. “There’s always someone doing something and it’s fantastic to have The Northern Echo on board – that has made such a difference.”

New evidence is coming through about drugs being used in combination is having positive results – but those advance treatments take longer and add to the workload at the unit.

For example, Beth cites Pertuzumab and Trastuzumab, which is a combination treatment used to treat breast cancer. It had traditionally been used pre-surgery, but it is proving more effective as a post-surgery treatment.

“It’s really encouraging but instead of it taking 15 minutes, it takes three hours post-surgery, which obviously has implications for our workload and capacity,” explains Beth.

There is a similar story in haematology, where there is a new licence for a combination of drugs called Daratumumab and Velcade, but that also takes longer to administer.

“The staff have been absolutely fantastic at coping with the changes, but we need a unit that’s four times the size,” says Beth.

Staff and patient panels are involved in designing plans for what’s needed with the new appeal and the developing proposals include:

• An open-plan waiting room leading out to a garden to help patients feel more relaxed.

• Three consultation rooms to provide greater privacy and dignity.

• 14 treatment rooms

• A quiet room where patients can be given upsetting news or see specialists in privacy.

• A complementary therapy room.

• A phlebotomy room where blood samples can be taken.

• An intrathecal room where chemotherapy can be administered into the spine and bone marrow biopsies taken.

• Staff facilities, including showers, lockers and a meeting room.

• Spaces for scalp-cooling to minimise hair-loss.

• Storage areas for equipment and records.

Pat Chambers, a breast cancer survivor herself and now manager of the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust Charity, is delighted that the appeal has passed the £200,000 mark but believes a step-change is now needed, with businesses being urged to come on board.

“We can’t thank people enough for what they are doing to support the appeal, but it has largely been individuals, families and community groups who have been raising the money.

“Now we need the business sector to rise to the challenge and help us by pledging bigger donations. That’s what is going to be needed if we are to reach the £1m mark by our target of next summer.”

In the meantime, Stephen Moss and his fellow cancer patients at the chemotherapy unit will continue fighting the biggest battle of their lives.

  • To support the appeal, email Pat Chambers at pat.chambers1@nhs.net or call 01325 743781 or donate at www.justgiving.com/cddft

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