International lawyer Cherie Blair pays tribute to Teesside breast unit on its 20th anniversary

Human rights lawyer and wife of the former Prime Minister Cherie Blair CBE, QC is just one of many people paying tribute to the breast unit at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust as it celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Photo shows members of the breast unit team at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

Around a decade after the breast service was implemented, the dedicated breast unit at the University Hospital of North Tees was officially opened on 20 December 2001 by Mrs Blair herself.

The multidisciplinary team in the unit diagnoses around 360 cancers per year – almost one a day – through their mobile asymptomatic breast screening service and carries out around 180 symptomatic appointments (referred by GPs) per week across their North Tees and Hartlepool sites.

Photo shows Cherie Blair.

Mrs Blair, barrister and wife to Tony Blair, said: “It’s a huge pleasure to congratulate you on the 20th anniversary of the opening of the breast screening and treatment unit in the North Tees Hospital.

“I remember that occasion very well and was honoured to take part in launching the advanced technology and services that would benefit so many thousands of women in the Teesside area and beyond.

“My congratulations to everyone involved in making this unit such a success over the years and my very good wishes to all the staff and patients of today.”

It’s not just Mrs Blair paying tribute on the unit’s anniversary – patients are also full of praise.

59-year-old Teesside Court magistrate Elizabeth Carroll, from Hartlepool, was diagnosed with breast cancer on 20 December 2012 – 11 years to the day after the unit was opened.

She recalls her experience of being told the news by Trust consultant surgeon Mr Colm Hennessey: “Being diagnosed with breast cancer was not the Christmas present I was hoping for! As Mr Hennessey gently held my hand and gave me the news, I was terrified and so uncertain of what my future held.”

Elizabeth began her treatment in January 2013, undergoing chemotherapy, a mastectomy and, finally, radiotherapy. Her treatment came to an end the following August – the week before her daughter’s wedding.

She continued: “I was supported all the way by Mr Hennessey and my amazing breast care nurse Geraldine Croft.

“Everyone in the unit – reception and admin staff, health care assistants, radiographers, nurses and doctors – they were all, without exception, kind, caring, understanding and professional.”

Eight years after she was given the all clear, Elizabeth still thanks the team in the breast unit for their dedicated care and compassion as she looks to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary and 60th birthday next year with husband Glenn, her two children Emily and Simon, and her six loving grandchildren.

Elizabeth said: “I am grateful every day that I am here to celebrate with my family.

“I wish everyone in the amazing breast unit joyous celebrations on the 20th anniversary. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for caring for me.”

The breast unit is made up of a team of devoted members of staff in different duties – including radiologists, surgeons, consultant practitioners, radiographers, breast care nurses and supporting staff – all contributing towards patient care.

In early 2020, North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust became the second trust in England to offer a new method to localise breast cancers during surgery by using small iodine ‘seeds’.

One of the biggest breast cancer advancements in years, the seed, which emits a week radioactive signal, is injected into the tumour in the breast tissue. The signal is then detected by a surgeon, allowing for more precise removal of the tumour.

Looking back on the advancements and achievements within the dedicated breast unit, associate practitioner Karen Coates said: “I am incredibly proud of my role in helping to save lives. I work with an amazing team of people who always put patients at the heart of what they do.

“I love taking every opportunity to make a patient’s journey a little bit easier by making them feel comfortable and at ease during their screening appointments and, for some ladies, through their biopsies.”

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