For the past 15 years, Madam Tay has a routine as she preps for her biennial mammogram check-up.
It involves dialing 6225 5655 to ask for a specific person – Staff Nurse Lay Choo.
Lay Choo is a nurse counsellor who mans the National Cancer Centre Singapore Cancer Helpline. Madam Tay and Lay Choo first spoke when Madam Tay was diagnosed with breast cancer more than a decade ago. Dejected, Madam Tay called the NCCS Helpline for a listening ear. The pair soon forged a special relationship through frequent phone calls.
"It has been 15 years, and I have counselled Madam Tay through diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. She usually calls to share her fears, and has remarked that she feels more confident after speaking with us," said Lay Choo.
Staff Nurse Teo, Lay Choo
28 September 1999: Launch of NCCS Cancer Helpline by then-Parliamentary Secetary, Ministry of Health, Mr Chan Soo Sen
Since its launch at a time when the internet wasn't prevalent, the NCCS Cancer Helpline has been a source for up-to-date cancer information such as risk factors, signs and symptoms, prevention, early detection, and management of side effects.
Currently, three professional nurse counsellors service the helpline, which receives more than 5,000 calls, emails, and face-to-face counselling requests each year.
"In recent years, more people contact the Helpline through email rather than phone calls," said Senior Nurse Manager Jenna Teo, who has helmed the service since 2011.
"The manner in which people seek information has also changed. Now with general cancer information widely available on the internet, callers look to us for more specialized and up-to-date information. We also help to clarify doubts and put into perspective what the doctor has said to the patient. However, we do not offer medical advice or treatment recommendations."
A cancer diagnosis can cause an emotional upheaval to a patient and the people around them.
The NCCS Cancer Helpline serves as a counselling line for cancer patients, caregivers and their loved ones when they seek information and support. Every call is confidential and anonymous, there is no caller identification on the phones, and nurses do not ask for contact details.
Nurse counsellors treat each call with extreme care and attention, as no two counselling cases are the same.
Sister Jenna recalls a call she once received where she heard someone say "I want to jump down from the building". It was a patient who wanted to end his life. Sister Jenna had to handle the highly delicate situation in a calm and professional manner.
Senior Nurse Manager, Jenna Teo
"Due to anonymity, there are certain challenges to ensuring the safety of the caller. Once I had counselled him and was sure that he was safe, I managed to convince him to call me back again the next day. He did so, and during our follow-up conversation he agreed that he would resume treatment."
Each nurse counsellor has to undergo a 12-session training in counselling, which is conducted outside working hours. "To effectively help the person on the line, we want to understand why they say the things they do, and how we can respond appropriately," said Sister Jenna.
Each staff member in the department has more than 25 years of experience in the nursing profession.
However, length of service does not necessarily equate to easy emotional detachment in the aftermath of a disturbing call.
"Sometimes, callers share their fears and frustration about a complicated family matter. It is especially hard when we can only empathise with their sad stories, but not help to resolve it for them."
To build a healthy work environment, Sister Jenna emphasises the importance of stress reduction and debriefing sessions. The team meets every morning to discuss cases and this also serves as a platform for team members to voice feelings or concerns over disturbing or difficult calls.
To help patients look good and feel better, nurse counsellors also take on the role of stylists, running the Wig Bank, a complimentary wig fitting and styling service for NCCS patients.
"At our wig fitting appointments, patients can try on wigs of varying lengths and styles with different types of fringe, curls and colours. We teach them how to style and care for the wigs," shared Staff Nurse Lay Cheng who has held weekly sessions for the past 9 years.
"Sometimes, emotional and psychological distress can stem from body image issues. A woman's level of confidence often plunges with hair loss. I have seen many patients regain their sense of confidence after getting a wig to use while they undergo treatment.
Nurse counsellors also connect callers to health, welfare, and cancer support services available in Singapore. These can include tube-feeding services, wheelchair and respirator rental, and wound management.
When asked about upcoming plans, Sister Jenna shared, "As a team, we want to provide better care as our callers' user patterns change with time. In addition to extending our operating hours, there are plans to enhance the user process with interactive elements. Weekend appointments may also be introduced for greater flexibility."
The NCCS Cancer Helpline marks its 20th anniversary this year and hopes more people can benefit from its counselling service. If you know of anyone affected by cancer, do share this complimentary service with them.
Author’s note: Patient name in this story has been changed for privacy reasons.
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