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Profile: nurse advisor to the soapstars

Eastenders, the soap featuring the lives of residents in East London's Albert Square, watched by seven million viewers, is once again tackling a gritty issue; prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is expected to be the most common cancer in men by 2030, so raising awareness of the disease is key to early diagnosis and treatment.

BBC's Eastenders has been praised for breaking the taboo surrounding prostate cancer, with its recent Stan Carter (played by Tim West) prostate cancer storyline. Karen Sumpter is the clinical nurse lead helping direct the storyline she says: “It has been amazing, a really interesting experience and something that I have not had the opportunity to do before.”

The storyline aired in November and showed the affect a prostate cancer diagnosis has, not only on the patient, but also on their family and friends.

Pensioner, Stan, doesn't want to face his disease and goes into denial rather than seeking help. He is difficult with doctors and tries to keep the diagnosis to himself. With the Eastenders' storyline portraying Stan as doing all of the wrong things it is hoped to raise awareness among men of the disease and highlight the damaging effect of ignoring potential signs of prostate cancer.

Sumpter, who works for the charity Prostate Cancer UK, also praises the portrayal of Stan saying: “I think Tim West has done a great job in portraying a man who knows he is not going to recover from his illness and it has been great that we have been able to contribute to that.”


The BBC needed a clinical nurse to help with the storyline, an opportunity which Sumpter was happy to take. “Prostate Cancer UK was approached by the BBC in relation to Stan's storyline and they were looking for a clinical expert to support, advise and try to make the story as authentic as possible. As I have an in-depth knowledge of prostate cancer, experience of managing a urology ward and I currently manage a team of 12 nurses, I put myself forward” said the clinical lead.

Sumpter's strong clinical experience has helped prepare her to lead on Stan's story. She qualified as a nurse in 1988 at King's College Hospital in South London and worked in a surgical ward environment. During this time Sumpter realised she particularly enjoyed looking after patients with head and neck cancer (HN) and chose to do a specialist course in ear, nose and throat cancer (ENT).

In 1995 she chose to take her first ward manager post in ENT and HN cancer at Northwick Park Hospital in Middlesex, while in this position the ward doubled in size and urology joined. Speaking of this time Sumpter says, “After a year in this post I found myself as the manager of ENT, HN and urology, that was kind of my first experience of prostate cancer. I stayed at Northwick Park and became directorate senior nurse so I did quite a lot of; service development, patient pathways work, creating new specialist nurse roles and nurse lead clinics.”

Supporting patients with prostate cancer became a big part of her role, which is why she has the experience to help Eastenders. “I was a urology ward manager for four years at Northwick Park hospital and as part of that I cared for quite a few people that had spinal cord compression, which is the bit of the storyline recently seen on Eastenders” says Sumpter.

Gaining in-depth experience and knowledge of prostate cancer isn't something she initially planned though. “It came to me by default, because the specialty landed on my ward… on the urology ward prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer that you would look after so you have got that volume of patients and I suppose it is interesting that there are lots of different types of treatments for patients. The other thing is I really quite like looking after men as a nurse,” says the clinical lead who lives in Hertfordshire.

In 2003 Sumpter left the NHS and became deputy director of patient services for 10 years at St Lukes Hospice. Following this she is now working in her current position as clinical lead at Prostate Cancer UK where she was given the opportunity to work with Eastenders.

Sumpter and media relations manager at Prostate Cancer, Mary Frampton are working with many members of the Eastenders team including researchers, scriptwriters and the filming crew to guide the storyline.

It is important for Eastenders, viewed by seven million portray the diagnosis and hospital setting of Stan's prostate cancer correctly.

Sumpter also added that the work of the Eastenders' soap actors shouldn't be overlooked. “It really was a fabulous experience I really enjoyed it, I had two days on set that was fascinating, and I guess I hadn't really appreciated how much time goes into getting everything right and how hard the actors work.

“It's been interesting watching back the episodes when I was on set and thinking about how they rehearsed the scenes a few times, then shot them, then they re-shot the same scene but at a different angle, and I hadn't appreciated that; soap actors work really hard.”

Prostate cancer often goes unnoticed by men because it usually progresses slowly with no symptoms for many years. Symptoms begin to appear when the disease has made the prostate become large enough to affect the uretha. Therefore it usually become apparent when suffers feel an increased need to urinate, feeling of the bladder not being completely emptied following urination and straining while trying to pass urine.

With more than 10,000 men losing their lives to the disease every year in the UK - which is one man every hour - raising awareness is essential and Eastenders appears to have helped.

Sumpter said, “Eastenders is a prime time show with
large audience figures and the potential to reach a huge amount of people - any opportunity to raise awareness is great and
really important.”

Awareness of the disease is thought to be increasing, “Surveys suggest that there has been an increase in awareness over recent years, this could be due to a variety of things; the Movember or Prostate Cancer UK's Men United campaign,” says Sumpter, mum of two.

With Eastenders highlighting the effects the disease has and campaigns taking place, it will hopefully prompt men in high risk groups and men in general to be tested if the suspect they have any signs of prostate cancer.

Testing for prostate cancer includes an examination of the prostate gland and a blood test to identify if levels of a protein called prostate specific antigen has increased. Sumpter feels the raising awareness shouldn't stop at soap stories. “There is still more to be done and we still need to make sure we are raising awareness in those high risk groups such as black men, men over 50 and men with a family history of prostate cancer.

“I would say Eastenders has shown one man and his family and their cancer journey and they have been able to portray certain elements of the disease but as we know everyone's journey is different and people have different treatments, side effects and make different choices. A cancer diagnosis can have a huge impact on a family but no two families are the same.”