We seem to read about cancer all the time — which is important — but don’t know much about the working lives of the people fighting to minimise its effects, like those in the frontline cancer charities.
On a bright Monday morning visit to Action Cancer’s attractive BT9 headquarters in Marlborough Park, I gained a different perspective on cancer. I came to understand this most complex of diseases as a condition so common that one-quarter to one-third of us will develop some form of it at some point in our lives, as a driving force behind the charity’s enthusiastic workforce. And as a disease to be fought, not necessarily a death sentence.
Stepping into the pastel reception area, it’s immediately clear that a smile and good customer service are part of the welcome for the queue of women who attend the clinic here for breast screening.
This breast clinic is one of Action Cancer’s most used services, offered to women who are aged 40 to 49 and over 70 and so fall outside the NHS screening programme. Cathy Biggerstaff has been on switchboard and reception duty here for 10 years and says she loves the job. “It’s great here, just meeting and helping people”.
If this is the start of somebody’s cancer journey, and of the 1,000 women who are given mammograms every month, maybe seven will discover they have cancer, it’s not the worst place to begin.
Dougie King, head of fund-raising and communications, shows me round and admits that since the recession, everybody is working harder. “But there’s nothing more motivating than to know you’re saving lives,” he says.
Chief operating officer Norman Carson, who has been in post four months, says he wants to tidy up the reception area and get a proper notice board for the A4 sheets promoting the charity’s second Moonlight Walk on June 18 showing poster girl Zoe Salmon in pink.
Norman says the charity is on track to raise the £3.2m it needs for annual operational costs.
There’s a cheerful philosophy in evidence. Everyone is very proud of the Moonlight Walk which attracted 1,000 people last year, each of them paying £25 to trek through beautiful country at night for a good cause. “There was a lot of work and planning, and we raised £150,000, including sponsorship. This year we want to double that,” says Norman.
Patron Zoe Salmon recently made an appeal. She said: “I’m asking everyone to don their walking shoes to support the fantastic work Action Cancer does, providing breast screening for women in Northern Ireland. Perhaps you’re walking in memory of someone or with a friend who’s going through breast cancer or to raise awareness. It’s so important to get early detection and I back this work.”
Inside the clinic, behind the white doors that lead to the diagnostic and therapeutic heart of the Action Cancer charity, radiographer Julie McGrath spends three days a week positioning (nervous) women in the mammogram machine. And training her expert eye on the results.
Although the Englishwoman never betrays her reaction in front of a client, sometimes she’ll look at the screen and wonder how the woman with what appears to be a large mass can’t have noticed any changes in her breast. “I’ve seen women with indrawn nipples and they’re just in denial.”
Objectivity can be difficult. “You think ‘This lady’s going to get the letter’. But the upside of that is that if she hadn’t attended the Action Cancer clinic, it could be worse. I don’t want anyone to suffer from breast cancer but if we pick it up when the tumour is small — under 5cm — that is a good result.”
In the waiting room under a skylight letting in bags of sunlight, a few women are waiting for appointments, chatting softly, feigning unconcern.
Among them is Patricia Kearns from Banbridge, a young 49 and a returnee who is attending for one of the complementary therapies on offer. Her story of being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer — which looked like “pin dots on the screen”, she recalls — has a happy ending.
It nearly didn’t, since Patricia only decided to go for a screening on a whim after she and sister Joan dropped into Gordons Chemists, which was running a campaign, in early 2009.
“Joan had hers done in January, my test was on February 12,” she says. Within a week, Patricia got a recall and sensed something was wrong.
“I went to the City Hospital on March 19, where they told me it was cancer and showed me these tiny dots onscreen. They said in five to 10 years, it could have spread to every part of my body.”
After the painful process of telling her family (“My daughter Sarah didn’t say very much but Catherine, doing exams at university, said she was devastated”), Patricia underwent the operations. She had a mastectomy, reconstruction and removal of affected lymph glands and then came some complementary treatments at Action Cancer’s clinic.
She’s on a bit of a high. “I’ve just had my second session of reflexology — it was amazing. Deirdre the reflexologist is excellent,” she says.
Patricia’s life has inevitably changed; she took off her wig to show me short, greying, rather funky hair. She paces herself these days because of fatigue. But she will be walking in Banbridge this month to raise funds, and sends her friends and relatives to Action Cancer’s Big Bus for screening. She hasn’t decided whether she’ll use the counselling service on offer but is glad it’s available. “I may take it up and encourage my family to use it as sometimes I look at them and wonder what’s going on in their heads.”
This place couldn’t function without the fund-raisers, key members of the Action Cancer family. I met two together, Kerry McCrea (32) and Leigh Chamberlain (26). Their enthusiasm is as heady as the pungent smell of essential oils in the treatment suite. Leigh says her role provides “a certain level of job satisfaction”.
Of each pound raised, 78p is ploughed back into the charity. “It’s a lean organisation,” says Leigh.
Like everybody else, the women who make the money to oil the cogs of Action Cancer regard their 9-5 as somewhat more than a job.
Some of the staff, though, have a special connection to their work. Emily Magrath (33), who lost her mother to breast cancer when she was 17, is in charge of the education programme. She is implementing the obesity agenda, a key government strategy trying to address the fact that one-third of cancers are related to overweight and poor diet.
“My job is varied and constantly evolving. One of the things we do is take a puppet show into schools with Wally and Wise, a wolf and a fox, who illustrate the good and bad approaches to food,” she says.
Ultimately Emily, who has two small sons and works a four-day week, is determined to help stamp out the disease by getting the healthy living message across to schools.
“That’s my motivation. Cancer had a major impact on my life and on my family, so I’m passionate about my job.”
Another enthusiast is Sean Conlon (25), the charity’s Big Bus co-ordinator, who applied for the job after his father died of bowel cancer. “I was looking to work in the voluntary sector, maybe with a cancer charity, because I wanted to give something back.”
He’s also a fund-raiser and was about to go skydiving for the cause, hoping to raise £3,000. Is the Action Cancer approach effective? The breast screening programme clearly saves lives but the charity also assesses its complementary treatments and counselling. As Action Cancer’s research and evaluation officer Dr Caroline Hughes (35) puts it: “My job is to see whether the stuff we do works.”
It’s a sophisticated process, using quality of life questionnaires and it throws up some surprising results. “We found people having counselling reported a slightly lower quality of life than those using complementary therapies, but that may indicate that was why they needed it.”
Everybody has a story and a different take on the Action Cancer ethos. Geraldine Kerr (49), a former social worker and head of professional services, reveals that the charity is hoping to expand the range of services on offer. “We want to build up our massage, creation touch, while following NICE guidelines. These therapies are important because the therapeutic touch is important. It’s about holding people, in itself an effective form of relaxation .”
Although the charity is seen as mainly an early detection and screening organisation, it’s clearly much more.
Action Cancer helps people recover but also, as Geraldine says, helps families in the rarer cases when cancer wins. “We offer bereavement counselling, palliative care, home visits and also preparation for death. We do save lives but can also help people to live with the disease, re-learning goals, reviewing life in a different, not a negative, way.”
Action Cancer, tel 9080 3344 or 9080 3361 to enter Moonlight Walk www.actioncancer.org