Design for life Centre offering sanctuary from cancer battles
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Sue Smith visited Maggie’s, a drop-in centre for people living with cancer which provides emotional and practical assistance as well as friendship
THE first sound walking through the door at Maggie’s in Cheltenham is peals of laughter as young women hug coffee cups, catching up with a chat before a Tai Chi session.
Some have been to hell and come out the other side while others are fighting their own personal battles.
They have all experienced cancer in some form or another, but this is not a place to be morbid or dwell on rogue cards they have been dealt in life.
Now in its eighth year in the town, Maggie’s offers a respite from endless chemotherapy, radiotherapy, doctors’ appointments and hospital gowns.
Here they can forget, at least for a while, they are all part of a club nobody wanted to join.
There are art courses, Nordic walking, yoga, Pilates, writing courses and a choir to join – or just a quiet corner to read and shut out the rest of the world.
Help is hand from psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical specialist nurses offering emotional support, as well as people qualified to give practical advice on benefits and wills and estate planning.
Centre head Sally Hayes has offered to visit job centres to help staff understand the financial support cancer patients need.
She said: “It’s a minefield and money worries are the last thing people need to be dealing with when they have been diagnosed.
“They don’t want to be jumping through hoops for money they are entitled to, even when they have the energy to do so at the beginning.
“We have to sometimes give out food vouchers here while people weave their way through the bureaucracy.”
Workshops include mindfulness, managing stress, sleep deprivation, nutrition and hair loss as well as a club run by men for men living with or supporting someone with cancer.
Sally adds: “We used to get around 800-1,000 people a month at the centre, we are now seeing more like 1,600.
“And we are doing a lot more with families, including grandparents who are playing such a significant part in children’s lives these days.”
The first Maggie’s centre was opened in Scotland 22 years ago and there are now 22 centres from Edinburgh to Hong Kong, with three more planned for this year.
Funding has been secured for a mini version of Maggie’s in Coleford at the Main Place, above the library on the first and third Tuesday of every month for the next year. The first session was held on October 1.
“It’s the first time Maggie’s has done anything outside its purpose-built building but we were aware there was a need for a group in the Forest and we have seen 100 people through the doors in just three weeks,” says Sally.
The centres are the legacy of Margaret Keswick Jencks, who terminally ill with cancer in 1992 found herself sitting in a windowless corridor of a hospital, dreading the prognosis she was about to get that cancer had returned.
She wrote that patients were ‘left to wilt under the desiccating glare of fluorescent lights.’
If architecture could demoralise patients, she reasoned, could it not contribute to mental enervation and prove to be restorative?
With her husband Charles, an architectural historian and theorist, her vision was to provide free, global care through great architecture.
The projects have attracted celebrated architects and the centres are signposted by all oncology staff at hospitals when people are referred for treatment for their cancer.
For Jane Robinson, from Charlton Kings, a 42-year-old mum with a fouryear-old son, Maggie’s was a lifeline when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 pre-menopausal breast cancer earlier this year.
She said: “I think I was in denial at first, it is so hard when you first find out, you don’t know how to tell people or how to talk about it,.
“I walked into Maggie’s for the first time the day before my mastectomy and now I come every couple of weeks.
“Everyone is always very cheery and it’s a lovely, relaxed environment where we are all going through the same experience.”
Carly Appleby, 39, from Cirencester, struggled for answers when she found a small, hard lump in her breast.
“It took me six months to get someone to take me seriously and by then I had Stage 3 hormonal breast cancer. I kept going back because I knew something was wrong,” she says
The mum of a fiveyear-old daughter, she finished her treatment in June when she found the chemotherapy had wiped out the cancer but she will have to take the pre- ventative drug Tamoxifen for the next 10 years.
“I came to Maggie’s as soon as I was diagnosed. I was in shock. I was only 37 and had never given a thought to my own mortality,” she says.
“It can be a very lonely time sitting in that oncology unit. Coming to Maggie’s has been absolutely incredible for me.
“There were times when I was so low and I found it particularly hard to cope with losing my hair.
“And even now that I have been told there is no evidence of the disease [patients are no longer put in remission] I still come to the centre.”
Ginny Ring, 70, from Gloucester says Maggie’s has been a lifesaver.
Having had treatment for breast cancer 20 years ago, the cancer returned to the other breast 15 years later.
It has now spread to her bones, her spine and her shoulder and neck and she was one of the unlucky one in a hundred to contract Osteonecrosis of the jaw which can occur as a result of the medicines used to treat cancer, and causes tooth loss.
“Maggie’s feels like a second home to me. It’s a place I can come to and switch off my worries,” says Ginny whose husband Ron, her carer, died in February.
“It has been my saviour. I have had a lot of sadness and at times I was in a very dark tunnel, but there has been a lot of joy too and I have made some good friends here who have helped me through.”
Ginny sings in the choir at Maggie’s and has learned to play the ukulele.
“I originally didn’t want to come here but my husband gently pushed me out of the car and it was the best thing that could have happened for me,” says Ginny.
With £480,000 a year needed to fund a Maggie’s centre there are ongoing fundraising events.
The charity receives money from the Postcode Lottery, a Pedal for Maggie’s bike ride takes place every year and it benefits from the Beards Diamond Rush in Cheltenham. There will be a Christmas Fair at Double Tree by Hilton at Charlton Kings, on Saturday, November 17 from 11am-3pm and Carols by Candlelight at Christ
A Tai Chi Class at Maggie’s in Cheltenham and, below, a memory jar Pictures: Mark Watkins