Journey of care

With a wealth of experience in nursing and palliative care, La Lucia’s Cherry Armstrong has spent much of her life empowering women, and helping people navigate their cancer journeys.

What is it like working with people who have life-limiting illnesses? Just ask Cherry Armstrong, a dynamic and inspiring nursing sister who has engaged with various aspects of cancer for more than 30 years.

For Cherry, cancer, death and dying are a part of everyday life. It is because of her life and the encouragement of the many people whose lives she has touched as a palliative care nurse and stress consultant that she recently put her extraordinarily valuable insights into book form. This guide, written with love and care, aims to help ease the challenging journey for patients and their loved ones on this path.

The book – Cancer: Navigating the Journey – is practical but informed and honest in the way it answers a wide range of questions for anyone on their cancer journey. It is also full of compassion as it goes beyond the treatment and medical information doctors provide and covers lifestyle, emotional and spiritual aspects too.

“I started this book so many years ago and wrote it specifically for patients and loved ones to assist in their journeys. I always felt there was a missing link between diagnosis and treatment, and a need for people to take time to chat to someone and make sense of it all, before rushing from diagnosis into treatment. I wanted to be that person!”

Cherry, who is widely recognised as a social entrepreneur who serves the South African community at large, lives by the words ‘Be patient, be kind to yourself and most of all, just breathe’ – words that became the foundation for her success and for her survival in a field that is riddled with grief.

“Growing up, we lived on a small holding just outside Pietermaritzburg. Our days were spent outdoors climbing trees, biking and horse riding from dawn till dusk. My siblings were always getting injured on the farm and snake bites were rampant so, as the eldest, I think I filled the role of fixing injuries and making everyone better. I guess that’s a sign of where I was heading. My mum was a nursing sister, so I guess I followed in her footsteps in wanting to care for others.”

Cherry’s gravitation to palliative care and pain management was a natural one.

“Any doctor or nurse will know this is their calling. Empathy is our biggest asset. I was always concerned about patients in pain during my nursing days. I would talk to and try to soothe them. I also had a comfortable attitude towards death and dying. There are not many people who are comfortable with these situations, but I loved being able to help patients on this journey.”

For 18 years, Cherry was a project manager involved in many clinical trials, from oncology, rheumatology, and neurology to TB and influenza. She also ran her own palliative care and stress clinic after many years, working with Sherwood Hospice. She is currently launching an online consultation website to help people on – a one-on-one basis – on their journeys through cancer, death and dying.

“There is no age when it comes to cancer. The side effects of chemotherapy and radiation are a challenge to everyone. Being able to help patients manage and understand these side effects is imperative for a positive journey through this battle field. I think the greatest challenge is getting pain under control. I believe no one needs to be in pain.”

The toughest part of it all for Cherry is, never with the dying patient but, with the grief of the loved ones and families left behind.

“Knowing I’ve held a dying hand and allowed for peace in someone’s journey to the other side, and that I’ve made a difference, is what I live for. The grief that follows for loved ones can be very distressing. In moments when I feel the heaviness of it, I head for fresh air. I paddle on the ocean five or six times a week or walk and gym. I find my space to breathe and heal.”

Cherry says writing her book was also a form of healing, but ultimately, it was written with the aim of easing the journey for patients, loved ones and carers.

“I hope this book brings clarity to those starting a cancer journey. There is no single answer to the treatment and journey, but having a few points of reference during this time, will keep patients informed, and hopefully remind them that they have choices.”

Cancer: Navigating the Journey is available through Quivertree Publications and Takealot for R390.

Readers will find easy-to-understand information, practical coping tools and an invaluable sense of support for navigating the cancer journey – from the time of diagnosis to remission or terminal stage.

Cherry covers a comprehensive selection of topics from everyday practicalities, medical aid, treatment and side effects to nutrition, complementary therapies, hospice and home-based care. Her book also addresses questions and fears, what to say and do when a loved one has cancer, a section on children with cancer, and how to deal with a terminal diagnosis.

“Among this, you will also find stories of how others experienced and managed their cancer journey. These real-life stories offer a sense of connection and insight into the many ways in which cancer affects people. Ultimately, it’s the patient’s journey and each one is unique.”

When she’s not journaling or offering a caring hand to someone in need, Cherry dedicates her time to charity work, something she’s done for most of her life. Spending time in communities where people have little money or resources, means she regularly crosses paths with people needing help with cancer advice or HIV guidance. Because of this, she founded Celebrate Life SA, an NPO dedicated to empowering women and uplifting rural communities.

Her first project, back in 2005, was gathering 12 women to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Hospice SA. They raised R1 million. Since then, she’s climbed another mountain, run a marathon and crossed Lake Malawi for the sake of charity.

A strong believer in conservation, she also founded the Ubuntu Micro Bakery Project, an initiative designed to make communities surrounding nature reserves in South Africa more sustainable in the hope of having a positive impact on the rhino and elephant poaching crisis. This has been a huge success.

“In the end, it always comes down to humanity. For this reason I choose to support causes that are not only dear to my heart, but also celebrate the will to succeed.”

With this armour, Cherry continues on her path of cherishing people who are ill, striving to help those who cannot help themselves, and changing the world, one day at a time.

Men’s Health

A massive topic in November, Cherry shares some insight into prostate cancer …

  • Prostate cancer occurs when cancer cells grow in an uncontrolled way in the prostate tissue. It usually presents with no symptoms, particularly in the early stages. It usually develops in older men and generally grows very slowly, so it may not interfere with the length of life.
  • Symptoms include difficulty with urination and patients may experience pain in their bones. There may be signs of erectile dysfunction and weight loss. Prostate cancer, in a more advanced form, can spread to bones and other areas of the body.
  • From the age of around 40, men should have a yearly prostate specific antigen (PSA) test done which measures the PSA in the blood. PSA is a substance made by the prostate and levels can be higher in men with prostate cancer. A medical practitioner may also carry out a digital rectal examination to check for changes in the prostate gland.
  • Healthy habits all men should adopt include keeping fit and healthy and maintaining a healthy body weight. Some trials have suggested green tea, soy and cruciferous vegetables that may lower PSA levels. Reduce the intake of Trans fats and saturated fats.