CLIC Sargent, the UK’s leading cancer charity for children and young people, has been awarded a Big Lottery Fund grant of £363,000 to tackle social isolation among 16 to 20 year-olds going through cancer treatment in Northern Ireland.
The grant will enable the two Young People’s Social Workers at Belfast City Hospital to set up local groups for young people from all over Northern Ireland. They will be able to share their experiences with other young people with cancer at group meetings, which are also intended to stop them from becoming disengaged from their community because of their illness.
Many young people with cancer in Northern Ireland have become very isolated because they may have been the only person going through cancer treatment in their local area. Because Northern Ireland is very rural with a dispersed population, young people with cancer are scattered across the six counties. They already have to make long journeys for cancer treatment in Belfast, and all the support groups are based in the city too.
The project will address issues around isolation, low self-esteem and confidence, disconnection from the community and lack of social interaction because of treatment and being unable to attend school, further education or employment.
Over five years, fifty young people each year will be given project plans to help them to access one-to-one support and social activities, and to find opportunities to reconnect with their community. The groups will be sited all over Northern Ireland to reach young people in far-flung areas.
CLIC Sargent has been running a pilot project in Belfast between November 2012 and January 2013. The young people who took part in the pilot project said they wanted more information on sexual health, body image, fertility, social interaction and activities, alcohol and drug awareness, and fatigue management, as well as assistance with re-engaging with education, training and employment.
They undertook research to find out simple information they could bring to their group to reduce their sense of isolation. They identified a healthy eating programme and a video diary project. The group were also interested in finding an exercise programme to build strength and keeping their muscles working.
The funding will also allow young people from Northern Ireland to attend conferences in the UK or the Republic of Ireland, which has not been possible previously.
“This project is about managing the transition to adulthood and reducing the sense of isolation young people undergoing cancer treatment can feel,” said Cecilia Millburn, CLIC Sargent’s partnership manager in Belfast.
“One young person aged 16-24 is diagnosed with cancer each week in Northern Ireland. Treatment on average lasts for three years. This is a significant time out from a young person’s normal activities at an age when they are looking to develop their independence and at a very critical time in terms of transition from school into adulthood,” she added.
“Cancer survival rates have improved dramatically in the past 40 years. This project will help young people stay connected with their normal education or training and retain links with their community. Where young people are already feeling isolated this project will support them to re-engage with these networks.”
Young people wanted that sense of normality. They also did better if they had something to keep them motivated, coping better with treatment and feeling less isolated if they had something to aim for, said Cecilia.
“The young people themselves will identify what they want to tackle in their groups. In the past we have not had the funding to do this, so it is a great opportunity to enmpower young people with cancer to tackle issues like fatigue management and body image,” Cecilia said.
The groups will start meeting in April this year, and young people taking part will provide information about themselves at the beginning and end of their participation, so that records can be kept of their progress.
CLIC Sargent also aims to roll out the programme to 21 to 24 year-olds in the province, who are not covered by the lottery grant.