| 25 October 2023
Having recently won gold for Clinical Support Worker of the Year at Our Health Heroes Awards, Karen Read has worked as a Breast Cancer Support Worker at Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust for over three years. We catch up with Karen to find out about her journey into breast cancer support and why she thinks Breast Cancer Awareness Month is so important.
Having hit the ground running right from the get-go, Karen’s previous experience as a Health Care Assistant in Breast Care added copious amounts of value to her team and is making a positive impact to the wellbeing of her patients. Her co-workers quickly realised how special she was, explaining to Skills for Health:
Karen greets each working day with enthusiasm for her role and demonstrates great resilience during these challenging times for the NHS. She does it all with a great sense of humour and care for the people around her – a real pleasure to work with. She goes above and beyond in her role for so many patients and colleagues.
But it doesn’t stop there. Karen goes truly above and beyond her role. She runs a bra fitting service for post-operative patients, including prosthesis fitting; offers nipple/areolar tattooing for those who have had reconstruction; runs a monthly support group for patients and survivors; and with the Breast Care Nurses runs Health and Wellbeing seminars for those who have recently finished their treatment. Read on to find out about her motivation and hopes for the future…
First of all – congratulations on winning Clinical Support Worker of the Year at Our Health Heroes Awards 2023!
Thank you. It was a great privilege to be nominated and to have actually won the award was a huge surprise to me. It was an amazing day celebrating some great work that is being done across the country.
We’re excited to be speaking with you, as this month it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and your role is vital in supporting those going through breast cancer treatment. Could you tell us a little bit about the journey that you’ve been on to get to where you are today?
So I started working with breast patients about eight years ago, in a private hospital, where I worked alongside a breast care nurse – supporting patients after having breast surgery. Working alongside this nurse and two amazing consultants really gave an insight in to what patients have to go through after a breast cancer diagnosis and the support that is needed. Then three and a half years ago the job as a Breast Cancer Support Worker came up at Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust. It was just perfect for me so I applied and was lucky enough to be appointed. Prior to that I worked in childcare and managed children’s day nurseries, which was quite different to what I am doing now. Why did I change, you may ask – well having a close family member who was diagnosed with breast cancer many years ago it has always been something close to my heart. So when I got the opportunity to work in this field I didn’t have to think twice about it.
We’d love to know more about how you broadened your role. It was inspiring to learn about the other services you’ve kick started – what inspired you to do this?
I just wanted to be able to offer patients the best service they could have.
For me, the main thing is that patients feel good about themselves. No-one chooses to have breast cancer and they go on a huge journey from diagnosis through their treatment and if I can do a small thing that helps to make them feel better about themselves and to be able to move on afterwards then that’s what I will do.
I trained to do nipple and areola tattooing a few years ago, and what a difference it can make to patients and how they feel about their breasts if they have had reconstructive surgery. Having the image of a nipple and areola on the breast has a huge impact to self-confidence.
With regards to the bra-fitting service, I have so many patients come to me following surgery to get fitted for a prosthesis and ask me if there are any pretty mastectomy bras they can buy, as so many of them are quite traditional and they wanted something a bit more feminine. I get a lot of patients say to me ‘I just want to feel like me again’ and one of the big things is feeling good about themselves and what they are wearing. So I felt it was really important to start this bra fitting service, selling bras that were suitable for patients who have had surgery, but were also more feminine and made them feel better about themselves.
You’ve been able to build a community through your monthly support groups and Health and Wellbeing events, which must be lovely to see. Have any patients shared how this has made them feel/what feedback have you had from these?
Absolutely, being able to offer a support group where people can meet up once a month to share experiences is so important to them. It is a place where they can talk openly about how they are feeling and ‘not feel judged’ (in their words).
The Health and Wellbeing events have also been a huge success, giving all the patients at the end of their treatment an opportunity to meet with others who have been through a similar journey, share experiences, talk to others and hear from professionals about ways to help them move forward.
Some feedback from Support Group attendees includes:
“This is a wonderful service for which I am very grateful. Talking about issues that I knew were affecting me.”
“Relaxed atmosphere, helpful advice, knowing you are not the only one with these problems.”
“The support you offer at the support group is so important to me. Thank you.”
Feedback from Health and Wellbeing events includes:
“Thank you for organising a most beneficial and informative event.”
“Many thanks for putting on the Heath and Wellbeing event. It makes such a difference.”
“Meeting strangers who have been through the same thing as you, in a relaxed environment was so helpful and made me realise I was not alone.”
There is so much you offer to your team and to your patients. What do you enjoy the most?
The thing I enjoy most is seeing a smile on a patients face. Having a breast cancer diagnosis is not easy and is often life changing for many patients in many different ways, so being able to help them and see them smile after fitting them with a prosthesis and nice bra, or when they look in the mirror after having a tattoo is such a reward. I work with an amazing team and the job that I do is enhanced by working with this great team.
Why do you feel Breast Cancer Awareness Month is important, and how would you like to see this evolve?
It is so important, as an early diagnosis of breast cancer has a much better outcome. We all have breast tissue, both men and women so knowing what to look out for and how to self-examine is so important, as we know our breasts best. Both men and women can get breast cancer and I think that raising awareness of male breast cancer is something that can be developed and improved.
I would like to see more awareness and advertising on changes to our breasts that we should be aware of, for both male and female breast cancer.
I also think that ladies should be better informed about how they can ask to be kept on the screening program even if they are over 71, especially if breast cancer is something that concerns them.
Before we wrap up, what hopes or aspirations do you have for the future?
I would like to be able to work with a company or set up a company designing well-fitting mastectomy bras and non-underwired bras, which are supportive but also feminine, as this is so important to ladies and their wellbeing. This includes offering bras for the larger ladies as they really struggle to find well-fitting bras. There are more companies now that sell mastectomy bras, but they don’t all fit patients well. Breast cancer comes in all shapes and sizes.
I would also like to see a national improvement on holistic support offered to patients after their breast cancer treatment, as this can vary depending on where you have your treatment.
If you need help, support or information about breast cancer, find out more with Macmillan.
Our Health Heroes – the UK awards for the health and care workforce.
The awards recognise and honour the hard work carried out daily by thousands of healthcare support staff in roles vital to the provision of care.