It was a tough placement. So much is expected of us by this stage in our course. Our mentors are assessing whether or not they are happy for us to join the register of nurses, and we are acutely aware that in a few weeks or months (if our mentors are satisfied with our abilities) we will be newly qualified and practising independently. We are trying to learn as much as possible while we still can, but also prove that we already know how to be safe and work as a graduate nurse. We have seen so much by this stage of our course (after a Saturday night shift in A&E I truly thought I'd seen everything) - but of course we haven't seen or experienced a fraction of what there is to see. People's bodies and minds still shock and surprise me. This placement was when I properly understood that I will never stop learning.
And then there is oncology itself. Cancer is a very complex disease that evolves and changes over time. It can be cured and managed better than ever before - but not always. It affects everybody differently, and touches a person's family, friends and lifestyle too.
In my first week on the ward, one of the Macmillan Nurse Specialists said that I must make sure to spend a morning with her in one of the outpatient clinics before the end of the placement. "You will get a very one-sided view of cancer by working on a ward," she told me. It wasn't until the penultimate week of my placement that I got a chance to take her up on her invitation and join her in the outpatient clinic. On the ward I cared for people who were very sick - either because their disease had progressed and they were close to end of life, or because the treatment they were receiving was making them extremely unwell, even though it may have been killing the cancer. However, in the clinic I met a much greater number of patients who were either living a completely full life with cancer and whose symptoms were completely under control, or whose cancer had been cured or removed - by the often harrowing treatment we gave on the ward - and who had been in remission for many years. Many of these people were the beneficiaries of the enormous amount of reasearch and experimentation that goes into oncology in this country. It was helpful to be reminded that the very unwell people I was nursing on the ward, were just a small proportion of the number of people affected by the disease.
I had so much to think about and a great deal to say while I was on placement on this ward, but was unable to express it - partly due to confidentiality, but also because there was just so much to process in my mind. I took even more photos than usual on my commutes, and tried to spend the time on the train really focusing on my nursing skills, and reflecting on my new life as a nurse. I didn't get enough sleep because the shift pattern on this ward was unusually relentless, and I didn't run for the same reason. To be able to give of yourself - as you need to do when you are a nurse, and in many other professions - you need to be able to look after yourself too. I ended the placement with a new determination to make more time for running, sleeping, reading magazines and baking cakes - all those good things which recharge my batteries and keep me content.