“When people find out they have cancer - when they are trying to deal with that diagnosis - money is the last thing on their mind. They just want their health back,” Bernie McLaughlin, an advice worker for Macmillan Cancer Care said.
Based in the Sperrin Suite at Altnagelvin Hospital, Bernie is one of three advice workers funded by the cancer charity to help people dealing with the devastating diagnosis of cancer to get financial help and support while they are battling the illness.
Bernie and her co-workers have understandably strong views about the support on offer for people who have been diagnosed with cancer. “People with cancer should not have to jump through hoops to prove to the powers that be that they are ill. They have a diagnosis - they are not lying. They are very ill and yet are forced to jump through hoops to get the financial support they need.
“If we had our way then there would be a mechanism in place where a cancer diagnosis automatically came with a support package instead of making people fill in countless forms and endure medicals. Assess them after a time, of course, but a person dealing with a cancer diagnosis is already dealing with an awful lot.”
Bernie said she has no doubt that patients with cancer can feel victimised by the system.
“We hear all sorts. We have had one man who is terminally ill who simply cannot afford to give up work. We have partners or carers who are offered no support and cannot take time off work even though their loved ones are terminally ill. We (the charity) even had one client deemed fit to work despite the fact she herself was terminally ill. She won her appeal but died a few weeks later - without the stress that she had been put under she may have lived another few weeks or months, who knows?”
Bernie and her team, support workers Lisa Doherty and Kevin McCorkell, are passionate about the work they do. “It’s not the kind of job you can switch off from,” both Lisa and Bernie agree.
“When you learn people’s stories, they stay with you. You identify with them in some way. I might not be dealing with cancer but I can relate to their human experience. That’s hard to switch off from or detach yourself from.
“On more than one occasion I have wanted to cry with someone - to break down with them.”
The Macmillan Benefit Advice Service is available to anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer or is caring for someone who has cancer. Patients and their family can self refer - and can attend the office at the Sperrin Suite while in for treatment.
On other occasions the team will visit people within the hospital or make house calls. They can provide a full benefits check to make sure someone with a cancer diagnosis is getting all the support they are entitled to and can also help try and secure grant funding from Macmillan themself.
“While the main concern for people who have been diagnosed with cancer is getting well again, people do have to face up to their financial responsibilities sooner or later.
“That’s where we come in.”
Bernie said she is shocked and saddened that so many people believe they aren’t entitled to anything when fighting cancer. “We have had people who think that as they have worked all their lives they will not be entitled to any support at all.
“We have patients who have savings who worry this will stand against them.
“We can help people see exactly where they stand and help them fill out of the forms and get what they deserve.”
The team say that the number of people being diagnosed with cancer and seeking help from them has been steadily growing. While they normally experience a slow down in the summer months this year they were busier than ever with more than 100 people seeking advice in July alone.
Bernie thinks that having support to help work out your entitlements is vital if you are facing a battle with cancer. “There is no doubt in my mind money is a big cause of stress and stress can have a very negative effect on people who have cancer.
“It leaves you less able to cope with the physical illness if you are under pressure mentally as well.”
But for all the tough times in the job, Bernie said that being able to help people get that little bit of support is very rewarding.
“For some it feels like the weight of the world has lifted off their shoulders just to find out they have that little bit of money coming in - to have that couple of pound in their pocket.”
Bernie said the Macmillan team work very closely with the hospital staff - so that patients are made aware that the service is available.
They also hold fundraisers, including two coffee mornings last week to raise awareness and funds.
Between the two events last week they managed to raise £750 which will help them continue to carry out their vital work.
“We have been overwhelmed by the support of people and businesses to the coffee morning. Nothing seems too much for them and they help make the events a success,” Bernie said.
The Macmillan Welfare Team would like to thank LPC Cards & Gifts, The Killyhelvin Hotel, Fir Trees Hotel, Sainsbury’s, Sheila McCorkell - Rejuvenate, Drummond Hotel, Brunswick Superbowl, The Sandwich Company (Lisnagelvin), the City Hotel, SC Tarmac, Deirdre Campbell - Volunteer, Staff at the Sperrin Suite and everyone else who donated food and contributed.
The Macmillan Welfare Team are based at Office 2, Sperrin Suite, Altnagelvin Hospital, Telephone 02871345171 extn 216232.