How Daisy Lodge proved a haven for children during illness
Ahead of the fifth anniversary of Daisy Lodge opening its doors in October, Stephanie Bell speaks to two families affected by cancer and finds out why the therapeutic centre is so special to them
Since Rory McIlroy officially declared it open five years ago, Daisy Lodge in Newcastle has served as a sanctuary to over 2,000 local families impacted by cancer.
The holiday retreat, which is the only one of its kind in the UK and Ireland, is run by the Cancer Fund for Children.
Since it opened its doors in October 2014, it has provided therapeutic short breaks to 5,012 children and young people from Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.
This includes families nursing a child with cancer, others where a parent has cancer and bereaved families.
Speaking about the impact of reaching this five-year milestone, Cancer Fund for Children CEO, Phil Alexander, says: "At Daisy Lodge, we have created a safe, positive and nurturing environment that I have not seen anywhere else.
"The overwhelming feedback that we have received from families following their short break is that they feel less anxious, they were able to relax and recuperate and that they value spending this time together as a family unit."
The lodge has had many celebrity visitors in its five years. Not only did Rory McIlroy officially open the facility, but the Northern Ireland football team met young people and their families following their Euro 2016 campaign.
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Ireland rugby captain and Cancer Fund for Children ambassador Rory Best also visited Daisy Lodge with the Six Nations trophy in 2018.
Mr Alexander adds: "As a team, we are always moving forward, reflecting on what we are doing and aiming to improve the services we provide.
"It is a privilege to get to know so many families who trust us to support them throughout their cancer diagnosis.
"We will continue to support thousands more children and parents impacted by cancer in the years to come and help them to create special memories together.
"None of this would be possible without the amazing support we receive from the local community and businesses.
"We receive less than 0.5% of our income from government funding, so I would like to take this opportunity to thank people across Northern Ireland for their continued generosity and support."
Nola Harrison, from Hillsborough, and her daughter, Zara (15), and Barbara Rooney, from Newry, are helping Cancer Fund for Children to mark this milestone by talking about how cancer touched their families.
Nola says that her daughter, Zara (Barnett), was able to smile again, thanks to the specialist support she received from the Cancer Fund for Children at Daisy Lodge.
Zara was just 11 and one week away from starting her first year at Victoria College when she was diagnosed with leukaemia in September, 2015.
She was devastated to miss starting her new school and in fact missed her entire first year.
Now fully recovered, she is in fourth year, studying for her GCSES.
Her mum, Nola (41), who is a spa therapist at the Slieve Donard Hotel, recalls: "We had just been enjoying the last days of our summer holidays at the caravan park in Kilkeel when we noticed Zara was very tired, and not her usual self.
"She was normally a very strong and athletic young girl, so we knew something wasn't quite right.
"I phoned the doctor as soon as we got home, and he referred us to the Royal Victoria Hospital to get some blood tests done.
"It was later that day when Zara's blood tests came back that they told us she had leukaemia. When I heard the word, I didn't know much about it. I was very scared and thought surely this must be a mistake.
"The reality of the situation really hit us when we were sitting in this grey hospital room.
"Zara should have been starting her first day back at school and thinking about putting her uniform on, getting the bus to school, getting her timetable.
"She was so disappointed not to be going and asked the doctor if she could even go for one day, but he said she couldn't and it was a full year before she got to start at Victoria College."
Things started to change for Zara very quickly during her first round of chemotherapy treatment.
She became very sick and wasn't able to eat much. She was also aware that she was going to lose her hair, so she bravely decided to have it all shaved off.
It was a tough time for all the family. Zara has three brothers, Harrison (16) and Zac (10) and now two-year-old Jackson, as well as a younger sister, Juliette (13).
It was during this time that the Harrison family were introduced to the Cancer Fund for Children. Nola describes how Daisy Lodge becomes the family's "sanctuary" and a place where they could relax, after the stresses of Zara's treatment.
"We came to Daisy Lodge straight from hospital, where Zara had been having treatment for six months," she says.
"She still wasn't very well at that time, so she was in a wheelchair and had a feeding tube, but we were so excited to be out of hospital.
"When we arrived at Daisy Lodge, we were welcomed with open arms, Zara was no longer a patient, she was just Zara.
"It quickly became our retreat away from hospital, our safe place.
"In the hospital environment, Zara was so sick. She wasn't talking to anyone, she didn't make eye contact. She had totally closed down.
"When we got to Daisy Lodge, though, she relaxed immediately and she started to open up and talk to the charity's cancer support specialist. That first weekend they did arts and crafts together, and she loved it.
"The food was so nourishing. Zara hadn't been eating well because she had been so sick with the treatment.
"When this gorgeous food was set down in front of her, I think it opened her eyes, and she started to eat. That was such a relief for me because up until then, I felt so much pressure for her to eat something."
Nola has since become a volunteer for Cancer Fund for Children in the spa and wellbeing room, using her skills to give back and help families going through a similar experience.
She sums up the impact of the very special place that is Daisy Lodge: "When we went to Daisy Lodge, we felt lightness, and we always came away feeling more energised and hopeful. I think my standout memory was seeing Zara laughing with the other children.
"When Zara was diagnosed, it was like a part of her disappeared. I just remember her sitting in front of the fire at Daisy Lodge and just smiling. She found her spirit again.
"It's phenomenal that Cancer Fund for Children has supported 2,140 families like ours. During cancer treatment, it is just so important to have this special place to spend family time together."
Zara received treatment for two and a half years and still has to be monitored every six months, although she is now clear of cancer and back to full fitness and health.
"At Daisy Lodge, I was the same as everyone else," Zara says.
"In other places, I felt self-conscious about people looking at me, but I just felt so comfortable there. It was the first place I walked around without a bandanna on.
"I also made friends with other young people who I could relate to and talk about my experiences with."
Barbara Rooney (46), from Newry, was diagnosed with aggressive HER2 positive breast cancer in July 2017 and has undergone gruelling treatment, lasting almost two years.
She says that the specialist support she received from Cancer Fund for Children at Daisy Lodge was invaluable to her and her children during what was a very tough time for all the family.
When she was first diagnosed, Barbara says her older children, Leah (23), John (22) and Sophie (19), were able to support and talk to each other.
Her middle son, James (13), is quiet and kept himself to himself, but it was her youngest boy, Pierce (10), who was just eight at the time of her diagnosis, who caused the most concern.
"Pierce took the news really badly," Barbara says. "He had to be given special attention in school because he found it really hard to deal with me having cancer and his school, St Clare's Abbey, was brilliant, even giving him one-to-one support.
"Another child had said to him when I was diagnosed that because I had cancer, I would die and it worried him so much, he was having nightmares.
"When I had any hospital appointments, he would panic and I had to just sit him down and talk to him and reassure him that I would be open and honest with him.
"It was during that time I found out about Cancer Fund for Children from a MacMillan nurse. At the time, my head was crazy. I think I was dealing with the shock of my diagnosis and with the children, which was the hardest part.
"Regina, from Cancer Fund for Children, came out to visit me and explained the support that was available. She dealt with everything for me and then I got the call inviting me to come for a short break to Daisy Lodge."
Barbara's first visit was on her own to give her the chance to heal through alternative therapies, which helped her to cope with the terrible side-effects of her treatment.
She went back the second time with her children.
She says: "As soon as we walked through the doors of Daisy Lodge, the kids felt comfortable.
"The facilities for children are amazing. They had so much fun playing in the games room and were able to interact with other children who also had a parent with cancer. They were just so happy there.
"I was able to relax. I was away from home, away from worry, away from sickness. I was able to relax because the kids were with me and they were content. I was able to speak to other people who had been through a similar experience and how they coped with their cancer.
"Cancer Fund for Children's staff are just so wonderful and caring. They go out of their way to help you. It has just been a wonderful experience, from the holistic treatments and complementary therapies, to the food and the ambience.
"For the first time, I could see that Pierce was totally at ease."
Barbara has come through a tough couple of years. After surgery to remove her cancerous lump, she underwent chemotherapy and then radiotherapy followed by Herceptin treatment, which just finished in April of this year.
She lost her hair during chemotherapy and to help her and the kids cope with that, she decided to allow her children to each shave a bit of her head for charity.
That, along with a coffee morning, saw her raise £10,000 for Macmillan.
Barbara is still recovering from her treatments and trying to get her life back to normal.
"The fundraising was my way of giving something back and now that I am through my treatment, I am just trying to look forward and get my life back on track," she says.
- To find out more about the support Cancer Fund for Children offers, call 028 9080 5599 or visit cancerfundforchildren.com