Christina Spyridou, a pharmacist in Greenwich, never thought that a simple suggestion would help save someone’s life.
But that’s exactly what happened after one of her regular customers came in for his blood pressure prescription and mentioned he’d also had a persistent chesty cough.
At first she didn’t think too much of it. “A cough can often be a side-effect of these drugs,” she explains.
“But four weeks later when he came back for his prescription, the cough was still there. I had a chat with him about it and he mentioned he was also feeling very tired, and that he’d been a smoker in the past.”
Thankfully, Spyridou had just been to a Cancer Research UK Talk Cancer training workshop and encouraged her customer to visit his GP.
“The training was in the front of my mind, so I suggested he get checked out by his doctor.”
It turned out that the cough, along with the tiredness, were symptoms of lung cancer.
Spyridou’s words of encouragement meant her customer got the treatment he needed early enough to make a difference, and now he’s in remission.
Each year around 438 million people visit their community pharmacies, making pharmacy staff ideally placed to have one-to-one conversations about cancer awareness with people in their local area.
But they don’t always feel confident to mention the word ‘cancer’, and often have limited training on how to talk to the public about it.
Gill Kilgour, one of the lead Talk Cancer trainers, recalls: “One pharmacist we trained told me that she had often avoided having conversations about cancer for fear that she might say the wrong thing.”
In fact, around two thirds of the pharmacy staff who have attended the Talk Cancer training, say they have never received any sort of cancer awareness training before.
But we know more than four in 10 cases of cancer in the UK could be prevented largely through lifestyle changes. And more lives can be saved if cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage. For example, the five-year survival for bowel cancer jumps from seven per cent to over 90 per cent if it’s spotted at the earliest stage instead of the most advanced.
So while talking about cancer can be hard, simply having a conversation about it can help explore people’s fears and attitudes towards seeking help, or changing their lifestyle, and could help save more lives.
And that’s why Talk Cancer designed a course specifically for pharmacists.
But what is ‘Talk Cancer’ training, and how does it help?
Talk Cancer Training
Gillian Bartlett, who helps run the programme, explains: “Talk Cancer is a positive, down-to-earth training programme that gives community-based health workers and volunteers the skills and confidence to talk to people about cancer, as part of their everyday roles.”
It provides trainees with practical tips, resources and ongoing support to help them have more effective conversations about health and cancer.
“The training focuses equally on what to say, and how to say it,” said Bartlett.
Kilgour, offering an example, adds: “We suggest that pharmacists ask questions like: ‘What does your doctor say about that?’ as a way of encouraging people to seek help if they are concerned about a sign or symptom.”
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And the comprehensive programme is really making a difference.
Data collected from pharmacy trainees who attended Talk Cancer between 2012 and 2015, showed that they left training with more cancer knowledge and were more confident discussing cancer with the public including signs and symptoms, and NHS screening programmes.
And this shift in confidence, translates directly into results.
“If it hadn’t been for Talk Cancer, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say something to that customer of mine,” said Spyridou.
“The training sticks in your head and raises alarms. For example, just the other week I had a conversation with a lady who was complaining of arm pain. I asked her if it was normal for her to have this pain and she said it wasn’t, so I encouraged her to go see her doctor. I know she has since been diagnosed with breast cancer, so hopefully this was caught early,” she continued.
It’s clear that Talk Cancer can have a great impact on both pharmacists and patients, so we want to make Talk Cancer available to a wider audience.
This year, Cancer Research UK is piloting its first Massive Open Online Course, ‘Talking About Cancer’.
“By transferring some of the key elements of Talk Cancer onto an online platform, we hope to engage a wider audience who are able to get the training for free, and at a time that suits them,” said Bartlett.
And this couldn’t come at a better time, since the Department of Health announced that the budget for community pharmacies will be cut by six per cent starting in October 2016, putting extra pressure on them to do more with fewer resources.
We have also introduced a bursary scheme to help more people attend Talk Cancer training, especially those in need of funding support.
And there are plans to create a 90-minute version of the workshop, which can be delivered as part of on-going training for Pharmacy teams across the UK.
Ultimately, we hope that this course is viewed – in the words of one pharmacist who recently attended the workshop – as “essential for the whole pharmacy team.”
To find out more about commissioning a Talk Cancer workshop for pharmacy teams in your area, contact [email protected]
Or you can join a workshop near you. Visit the website for upcoming dates, and to find out how to apply through the Talk Cancer bursary.
For the latest cancer news and updates for pharmacies, sign up to receive the Cancer Insight for Pharmacy newsletter, by emailing [email protected]