Support for those who need it most


Pictured: Hauora Tairāwhiti cancer nurse co-ordinator Gretel McKenzie.


We caught up with Hauora Tairāwhiti cancer nurse co-ordinator Gretel McKenzie about what inspires her in her work, helping some our community's most vulnerable.

‘I’m working in a world-class hospital with world-class people when it comes to gastrointestinal cancer treatment’, says cancer nurse co-ordinator Gretel McKenzie. 

“I’ve worked in a world-class hospital before, in England, and when it comes to the gastrointestinal service, we have that replicated here in Gisborne.” Gretel is a cancer nurse co-ordinator here at Gisborne Hospital helping people with suspected or confirmed cancer navigate their treatment journey. People with breast, haematologic, gynaecological, and lung and respiratory cancers all receive guidance from a nurse navigator.

Even before she meets the person, Gretel is working behind the scenes on their behalf helping ensure referrals and appointments are being pushed through the health system.
The first time she actually meets the person will often be soon after they’ve had an endoscopy or colonoscopy procedure to see what might be causing their symptoms – be it abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding from the bottom, or weight loss.

“Everyone reacts differently. We all process things in different ways,” observes Gretel, who has helped hundreds of people through this part of the journey. Gretel, who used to be a theatre nurse, says there are two important messages to get across right at that moment. “I tell them that ‘I am their person’, and I congratulate them for listening to their body and taking the steps needed to get here today.”

As a gastrointestinal surgical cancer nurse co-ordinator Gretel works alongside people who potentially have cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, intestine, colon or rectum. “I say ‘let’s just take one step at a time. We are just getting all the information together but you have come looking for answers and that was the right thing to do'.”

After the results are back from the endoscopy or colonoscopy, Gretel has a videoconference with a multi-disciplinary team which includes pathologists, oncologists, surgeons, and clinical nurse specialists based in Waikato and Gisborne to help create the pathway of care for each person.

Gretel pays homage to the highly-skilled group of people wrapped around each person as they move towards medical treatment (medicine, chemotherapy or radiation), or surgery.
“This department has so many people who are committed and insightful about the cancer treatment journey. The cancer nurse care co-ordinators’ offices are near each other and we share our know-how all the time.”

Gretel also works with four surgeons and two registrars, visiting oncologists who share their time between Waikato District Health Board and Gisborne, and seven medical day unit nurses who look after people receiving chemotherapy and other medicine. Highly regarded nurse practitioner Lynne Gray manages medical oncology patients, and the department has its own dedicated social worker.

Gretel says the team has ample access to further education. They are all “motivated and inspired” and while some may think it could be a job filled with sadness -- for the most part it’s the opposite.

“It’s not all bad outcomes. Every day you work with a person who has cancer you have another opportunity to make their lives better, which makes our job worthwhile.”
Gretel’s connection to the people she cares for with gastrointestinal cancer is highly personal having lost both her mum and her uncle to bowel cancer. She and her five siblings (Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Porou,Tainui) take advantage of colon cancer screening every five years.

When she’s not working Gretel is never far from the latest research on gastrointestinal cancer. She pores over new articles and books and is particularly interested in cancer-prevention lifestyle options targeted at Māori and others at a higher risk.

A passionate supporter of New Zealand’s Bowel Screening Programme, Gretel says she is now seeing people who have been able to catch their cancers early. “These are people who were walking around in the community and had no idea they had the symptoms before they did their test,” she says. “They got the results and came in and saw us for the next step. For that they need to be congratulated.”

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