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My Name Is NOT Cancer

Play Specialist & Paediatric Support Coordinator

My role involves helping children and young people to get through their cancer treatment as smoothly as possible.

My qualifications include a BA (Hons) Health and Social Care Degree, Diploma in Specialised Play for Sick Children and Young People (which is essential to be a Play Specialist) and I am completing my Post Graduate Certificate in Cancer Care for Teenagers and Young Adults in July 2011.

I became involved in therapeutic play whilst studying for my Degree. I volunteered within a play therapy project and on completing my degree; I successfully interviewed for the coordinator’s role and started to run the project. I worked with children with very low confidence and self esteem difficulties, and was astounded by the difference therapeutic play could have to improve the children’s lives by making them much happier and more confident individuals. After spending a total of 4 years working with children in primary school settings, I wanted a new challenge which led me to my role at The Christie Hospital, Manchester. I trained in specialised play for sick children and haven’t looked back since.

Every young person (16-24 years) is given a lifestyle questionnaire to complete which enables us to identify their existing support networks, and their risk and resilience to stress. This enables us to establish a level of support which is appropriate for the young person and we then may involve other professionals from within our multidisciplinary team, such as our complementary therapist or physiotherapist.

When working with my younger patients, an developmental assessment is made of the child’s ability to engage and understand, and also by working with the parents to gain an insight into how the child copes with different situations, and to learn more about their behaviour. Assessments with very young children can involve engaging them in specialised and therapeutic play, which help the child to understand what will happen during their time in hospital and what will take place during different treatment procedures.

I work within a multi-disciplinary team consisting of: Clinical Oncologists; Radiographers; Staff Nurses; Occupational Therapists; Physiotherapists; Youth Support Coordinator; Complementary Therapists and Community Liaison Nurses.

My mantra is: “I am here to make a very difficult situation the best it could possibly be!”

This is achieved by working closely with all the young people within the hospital and their families, getting to know their individual likes and dislikes, and then trying to incorporate their favourite things into their time whilst receiving treatment, or as an inpatient in hospital.

My work is varied, and could involve arranging a visit to the theatre to see a show, or may be organising a special treat for a patient; such as having a pamper day with their friends! We make contact with organisations and inform them about our unit and ask them to help to make the event or special occasion happen and usually, organisations are very happy to help.

If there is anything to help the time in hospital be less stressful, we will try and make it happen.

The main reason support is offered is to help young people feel empowered whilst going through treatment, to ensure their voices are heard and also, to ensure they are able to cope and comply with their treatment regimen.

I work closely with The Youth Support Coordinator and through this association; families know we are here to support them during their time in hospital, during and after treatment.

We also offer sibling support. We arrange events for siblings to come together, who have a brother or sister going through cancer treatment, and encourage time spent with others going through similar situations. Sibling support is very important because of the impact a cancer diagnosis has on the whole family, and not just the person who is diagnosed. Siblings can very often feel left out, or helpless, and by having a support group, it can enable young people to meet others who understand how they are feeling, and this support is facilitated by staff who are experienced in working with young people. We organise two events per year. The first event is a fun day out which has, in the past, involved laser quest, bowling and going to a restaurant. The second event is a formal event where young people are given access to workshops aimed around coping strategies; art, music and sporting activities.

As a team, we also organise and facilitate Family Support evenings. Families attend on a voluntary basis and we try to ensure that all families are informed about the evenings. Families that have made use of this support, have found it very useful to attend, to have some time to themselves to reflect on their situation, and meet other parents who understand what they are going through. It enables families to get away from the ward environment, and the evening consists of workshops which many individuals find very useful. These workshops include complementary and occupational therapy.

My role is unique, and I feel privileged to be able to work with such amazing young people who inspire me every day!

A Play Specialist can be found in almost every children’s hospital/department including: Out-Patient Clinics; A&E departments; Intensive Care Units; Adolescent Units; within Community Paediatric Teams; and also Hospices within the UK and worldwide.

Play Specialists have been established as a professional role within the NHS, since the 1970’s. The Play Specialist role at The Christie Hospital, Manchester, exists because, although the unit is for patients aged 16-24, we have many young paediatric patients who attend for daily radiotherapy treatment.

by Penelope Hart-Spencer


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