"The word ‘Hospice’ shouldn’t be frightening"

As soon as I arrived at the Hospice of St Francis, it was a relief.

In January this year, after ten months of chemotherapy and several weeks of targeted therapy for metastatic breast cancer, which had spread to her bones and liver, Cheryl’s body held up the proverbial white flag.

She fell ill at her home in St Albans and was blue-lighted to Watford Hospital, where a week after her admission, she met Dr Sharon Chadwick, our Medical Director and senior Palliative Care Consultant, who works at the hospital one day a week.

Here, 63-year-old Cheryl describes what a difference that meeting made…

"When I first met Dr Chadwick, I had no idea there was a tie-up with the Hospice of St Francis, but it was a huge relief and without doubt the best thing that could have happened.

I was very sick. The targeted therapy had contributed to my kidneys failing and my system wasn't clearing the high doses of morphine and other medication I'd been on for the past year. I also had pneumonia and some heart problems.

By the time I'd been in hospital for two-and-a-half weeks, I was feeling angry, uncomfortable and utterly miserable. I had a real sense of wasting what precious life was left - however long that might be.

As soon as I arrived at the Hospice of St Francis, it was a relief to be in such a safe environment, surrounded by caring people.

As I live on my own, it would have been very difficult to cope at home after being discharged from hospital. I was very weak, had lost a lot of the strength I'd built up over the previous year and was also quite breathless.

Nobody should find the word 'Hospice' frightening - it's quite the reverse and the whole atmosphere is one of positivity, encouragement and care. The medical side of things is always there, but in a way that supports and promotes well-being.

The first step when I arrived was to work on changing my medication so that I was on drugs that did the same job as before, but different ones, which were kinder to my kidneys.

Next was a daily programme to build up my strength, which started with five minutes a day of physiotherapy, gradually building up to 20 minutes, and included a static bike and some stair-climbing - the latter being important for tackling the many stairs and steps back at home.

Then there were the wonderful complementary therapies available to patients to enhance well-being. I was able to have aromatherapy and reflexology, which I found particularly beneficial. I also had my hair cut for the first time since it had grown back after chemotherapy, which made me feel so much better.

In the health and well-being Spring Centre, across the other side of the Hospice from the Inpatient Unit, they run some excellent courses and classes and I was able to join in an Art Therapy group, which was great fun, making jewellery beads from paper - something I'd never done before.

On a more serious note, it was possible to make the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) decision while I was at the Hospice. It's a difficult issue to confront, but the doctors, especially Dr Chadwick, took the time to talk through the various scenarios and consequences, which enabled me to come to a decision with which I felt comfortable.

My zest for life diminished when I became poorly but the Hospice put me on the road to regaining my confidence and that has continued. My state of mind is the complete opposite to what it was.

I'd planned to be taking adventurous trips and walking the coastal path well into my 80's, but while this is no longer an option, I can still go to the opera and concerts and you learn to take pleasure in new activities.

I hope some of those will be joining in other activities on at the Spring Centre, such as the Colour and Style Workshop, aimed at helping anyone affected by cancer or serious illness to regain confidence in their appearance, Knit and Natter, a relaxed and friendly needlework group for patients, carers and the bereaved to share experiences and gain support. I may even do a creative writing course.

The Hospice is a place full of life as well as being a place where some people might choose to die, but the care it provides is tailored to what each individual person needs at whatever stage of their illness.

It just takes away the stress and uncertainty and supports families so well too, taking away the worry from them. I don't know how I would have coped without it."