Priceless Peer Support for Cancer Patients

Some things money truly can’t buy. The clue to charity Breast Cancer Care’s peer support scheme is the name: Someone Like Me.

Laura* called up when she was first diagnosed. The only other person she had known with the disease was her sister – who had died of it seven years previously. So chatting to Selma in Glasgow, fit as a fiddle, working, enjoying life and pulling pints several years after treatment was a revelation – a lifeline. “It’s just so wonderful to talk to someone who’s had this and is alive and well.”

Reassurance is the benefit cited again and again by users of the “Someone Like Me” scheme. Yes, doctors and nurses can provide wisdom, expertise and support. But their hair has not fallen out. They have not suffered the brain fog of chemo. Or the 3am wakefulness when scary thoughts about reoccurrences slither forth from the unconscious. The knowledge that someone has been along this very same road and has survived is precious.

Breast Cancer Care try to match clients with a volunteer of roughly the same age and situation (single, working or not working, married with children, etc) who has been on the same treatment path. Both parties are known only by their first names. Some clients are happy with just one call but others continue to have phone conversations every few weeks for months or even longer, and build up a valued relationship with their peer support volunteer. In their surveys, Breast Cancer Care report up to 99% satisfaction with the service.

A safe space to talk
Other benefits, according to Breast Cancer Care, include a safe space to discuss treatment issues. A corollary of the trend to involve patients in their care and treatment options is that patients are faced with making decisions about one-off situations and issues. If chemo is only of borderline benefit, doctors and nurses will talk through the pro’s and cons with the patient. But it’s also invaluable to get an opinion from another woman who has faced the same thing. Likewise with breast reconstruction. Breast Cancer Care are careful to point out this is not a substitute for medical advice. Peer support volunteers are merely sharing how they felt and acted at the time.

There’s a strange paradox – people living with an illness can be surrounded with loving concerned people and still feel very isolated. One user of the service talks about how she wants to be cheerful all the time and cook the tea for her grownup daughter even though she’s exhausted – it’s part of “being mum” and it matters to her to keep some vestige of normality. But discarding the brave face for an hour and chatting to an understanding stranger is a merciful release. Carte blanche to moan, worry, laugh – say anything – with no responsibilities.

Where are the other schemes?
The Someone Like Me scheme was studied by Professor Emma Ream at King’s College, London in 2010, with the recommendation that it should be offered “as part of a holistic care package”. Seventy-three per cent of the 40 women who received telephone support reported that it gave them hope for the future and 71 per cent said they received useful information, practical tips and support. Notably, “there was a significant reduction in quality of life for the comparator group of women who did not receive the service”.

Breast Cancer Care report that although several charities have contacted them, they do not know of many similar schemes. I’m surprised! It seems common sense. As more of us live longer not just with cancer but with arthritis, diabetes, macular degeneration, heart disease and more, surely peer support should come to the fore? It’s not for everyone but for those who do value it it’s a lifeline – a conduit for passing on tips, information, sharing worries and gaining reassurance. Of course it needs to be handled well and volunteers need to be carefully trained. It’s also complementary to but definitely not a substitute for expert medical care or professional counselling. But if I was diagnosed with a serious condition tomorrow, would I want to talk to someone who’s managing it well? A no brainer really…

*Names have been changed.