This is an article from the Coggeshall magazine ‘The Link’, written by the one of the organisers of the Coggeshall Fundraising Group for the New Cancer Centre, and reproduced here with her permission. It is worth the read – and shows how important it is to help Colchester Hospitals Charity reach their target – and indeed go beyond! Thank you Julie Standen for allowing me to use this.

Back in November, our fundraising team were invited to Colchester General Hospital to hear more about the designs for the new Cancer Centre chemotherapy unit, which we have been helping raise funds for.

The first thing that struck us was the distance between the general outpatient’s department (where patients have their chemotherapy consultations with their oncologists), and the Mary Barron Chemotherapy Suite. Not only was it a very long way, but it was through a number of cold and draughty corridors. This walk must be very draining for those cancer patients who are already feeling exhausted and poorly from their treatment.

The existing chemotherapy suite has 15 treatment chairs and treats about 60-70 people per day, with an additional 8 chairs in the Haematology Suite (where they treat blood cancers). The suite is currently working at over 100% capacity and staff have to work extended hours (8am -6pm) in order to meet the demands of all patients requiring chemotherapy regimens.

To maximise the use of the limited space in the unit, chemotherapy chairs and associated equipment are situated extremely close to one another, which offers no privacy. Chemotherapy staff advised that patients often feel unable to express their emotions and unable to talk openly with nurses due to the proximity of others, which is an upsetting thought and clearly unsatisfactory.

Cancer patients with very different outcomes are often sat side by side. Those reaching the end of their treatment, looking forward to life ‘post-chemotherapy’ may be upbeat and celebratory with their relatives. The inflexibility of the limited space in Mary Barron, means that the person sitting in the next chair could be a cancer patient receiving palliative care treatment, to help ease their symptoms and prolong survival. These two different types of cancer patients will be dealing with a very different set of physical and emotional issues. There is clearly a need for a better treatment environment which allows all patients to benefit from increased levels of privacy, dignity and space.

We were advised that the treatment time for chemotherapy patients varies between 30 minutes and 8 hours (depending on which chemotherapy regime is being used), as often as 3 times a month, for many months, and sometimes years. Treatment is given whilst the patient sits in small chair, surrounded by the constant noise of other people, trolleys and medical equipment, with only a small, thin curtain to be used as a screen between chemotherapy chairs.

Despite the obvious frustrations and limitations of the current chemotherapy suite, the cancer patients we met had nothing but praise for the wonderful staff that work in the Mary Barron Suite, though it was clear that it is a constant struggle for the small department to keep up with the sheer numbers of cancer patients who require chemotherapy treatment. This is particularly concerning bearing in mind we were told that cancer levels are increasing and that the population in Colchester is rising rapidly. This will result in unavoidable increased demands on a department that currently has no extra capacity. Clearly, patients deserve a more comfortable, suitable and respectful treatment environment. The chemotherapy staff already offer high quality clinical care for cancer patients, but they equally deserve to work in a more suitable, flexible environment.

An inspirational lady (a patient currently receiving chemotherapy in the Mary Barron Suite), talked to us about the care she is receiving. The main thrust of her moving talk was that the nurses and oncologists were ’outstanding’, but the treatment environment was clearly ‘not fit for purpose’.

After viewing the Mary Barron suite and hearing from some of the nurses and oncologist Dr Mukesh, we visited the new radiotherapy centre, which opened in 2014. The difference in the surroundings is astounding.

As we entered the new centre, everyone was taken aback. Having left the rather tired, cramped and obviously clinical chemotherapy department, we were amazed at how light and un-hospital like the new radiotherapy centre was. With attractive wooden doors and accents, a neutral interior colour scheme and beautiful artwork on the walls, it felt more like being in the reception of a spa than a hospital. The chairs, rather than being in rows, are arranged in small groups, which encourages patients to talk to one another. Patients have started their own support networks, waiting to see new friends before or after their treatment. Some have even bought their own picnic lunch to eat in the radiotherapy garden before treatment. There are refreshments available in the waiting area too, which also helps to make the environment feel more inviting.

The centre, one of the UK’s most modern, has 4 state-of-the-art radiotherapy ’linac’ machines with plenty of private changing areas allowing patients more dignity.

Staff communicate with their patients throughout the treatment, to reassure them, or play music to them (their own, if they wish to bring some inl), to help them relax. In addition, beautiful light boxes are placed on the ceiling to give the patients something to focus on while they receive their treatment (which can last up to 20 minutes, and often up to 30 consecutivedaily sessions). The new radiotherapy suite is a centre of excellence and considered to be one of the best in the country, which also attracts new staff, so much so that there is now even a waiting list for future staff vacancies.

The new chemotherapy suite will be located above and next to the existing Radiotherapy department, creating a ‘one stop shop’ for cancer patients, with all cancer related services being provided out of one specific area of the hospital; with the addition of the new chemotherapy suite, this area of the hospital will become ’Colchester Hospital Cancer Centre’. The new chemotherapy department will be purpose built and will house far more treatment chairs, allowing far more patients to be treated in a less cramped and frantic environment with far more privacy. Most importantly, it will also offer scope to cope with the sadly inevitable increase in numbers of future chemotherapy patients.

The new space will also include dedicated areas/zones where specific types of cancer patients can receive their treatment (such as palliative care and the treatment of young people). The new cancer centre will also incorporate space for several Holistic treatment areas and rooms that can be used for a multitude of purposes, such as cancer support group meetings and counselling sessions etc. It was really exciting to hear the plans for the new cancer centre at our local hospital and reassuring that much thought has been given to meeting the current and future needs (both physical and emotional) of cancer patients in our area.

As one of the hospital’s administrators pointed out, some people feel that the NHS should be funding the new Colchester Hospital Chemotherapy unit. But we all know how limited NHS funds are. With the local population growing rapidly and cancer diagnosis levels increasing ~ the need for a larger, purpose built and more sophisticated chemotherapy unit (to match the quality of the radiotherapy unit), has never been greater for Colchester (and surrounding area) residents.