Five-star haven that's helping thousands of NI people living with cancer
Ivan Little gets a tour of the Charis Cancer Care centre, near Cookstown, where treatments include massage, reflexology and aromatherapy, and hears how it has made a profound difference to patients fighting the disease - and their loved ones
All alone with his grief, a young man walks through the perfectly manicured garden of the cancer care haven in silent contemplation of his recently deceased mother, oblivious to the stunning view below.
In the lounge of the magnificent house beside him, near Cookstown, a woman who has also just been bereaved sobs quietly as a carer whispers comforting words in her ear and grasps her hand.
Close by, a group of cancer sufferers sip tea and chat about what they've learnt in a relaxation class as they sit in reclining leather chairs wrapped in blankets.
It's a snapshot of a day in the life of the Charis Cancer Care centre, a state-of-the-art retreat providing support and complementary therapies to cancer victims and their families, as well as to relatives who have lost loved ones to the disease, which is estimated to impact on one in three people in Northern Ireland.
The Charis centre sits high on a hill overlooking the splendours of Lough Fea, a breathtaking beauty spot little known to people outside mid-Ulster.
Yet the magnificent view from the house is one that few people really want to see because it's mostly folk who have been affected by cancer who get a chance to appreciate it.
The impressive building, which has been open for eight years, was donated to Charis by local businessman Jim Henry.
He had initially built it as a retirement home, but then had second thoughts about moving there, especially after word reached him that a group of people were trying to develop a project to assist victims of cancer and their families.
Jim reckoned the house in the foothills of the Sperrins would be the perfect fit for the proposed charitable group.
The sense in the area was that people who had received invaluable medical treatment needed more help after the NHS had done all it could for them.
Charis was happy to accept the offer of the house, which was re-designed to suit its needs, with officials travelling to Britain to see if they could learn lessons from what are known as Maggie's Centres, which have the same philosophies about cancer care.
After receiving planning permission in 2010, Charis opened its doors with a simple mission statement, vowing 'We are here to support men and women affected by cancer at every stage of their journey. We also assist the families and supporters of those living with cancer or any family member bereaved by cancer'.
Charis has certainly ticked all of the boxes by offering holistic support in the form of complementary therapies, counselling and advice in a calm environment.
The organisation's officials also recently received planning approval from Mid-Ulster District Council to almost double the size of the centre.
Now they're launching a campaign to raise the money for the expansion.
The centre is run by the indefatigable Imelda McGuckin, who has more than 33 years of experience behind her as a nurse, 10 of which were spent working for Marie Curie.
Imelda, who has a degree in cancer and palliative care, said that the team behind Charis - the name comes from the Greek word for grace - decided from the start that no one would ever have to pay for any of the treatment received.
The charity doesn't receive any statutory funding and relies on support from members of the local community, some of whom also help out at Lough Fea. Fundraising dinners have been held and Jenny Bristow, who is one of the charity's patrons, published a book of "inspirational recipes for a healthier way of life" on behalf of Charis.
Running the Charis Integrated Cancer Care project, to use its full title, is Imelda's passion, and her gentle, soothing manner has long been a crucial factor in the success of the centre.
On even the briefest of tours, it's impossible not to be moved by what Imelda and her team have achieved since they started assisting victims of cancer through their difficult journeys.
The figures speak volumes about the demand for their services and about the scale of cancer across Northern Ireland.
A staggering 5,500 people have passed through the doors of the Charis centre in the last eight years.
In the basement of the house are six therapy rooms for reflexology, aromatherapy and massage. Right down to its background music, the place has the feel of a five-star spa.
A team of trained therapists provide one-hour sessions for visitors in what is a sanctuary away from it all in the middle of the countryside for hundreds of people who travel from all over Northern Ireland to use the fantastic facilities.
Most visitors aren't in any rush to leave the centre, instead staying on to relax and enjoy the views of Lough Fea from summer seats in the garden or to walk through a grassy labyrinth - a maze-like structure with a single path in and out, designed for people to stroll in and clear their heads in meditation.
Hospitals, GPs and nurses can refer their patients to Charis, and the support it offers doesn't end in the therapy rooms.
Upstairs in a homely counselling room with easy chairs, visitors bring their diverse emotional problems to the team and are offered advice on everything from financial to dietary matters and more.
People are also invited to join relaxation groups, where they're shown, for instance, ways of getting to sleep.
There are also art workshops where people who can't open up about what they're going through are encouraged by experts to express their anxieties through painting.
One common response to a diagnosis of cancer is for people to trawl the internet looking for miracle cures or foodstuffs, but at Charis visitors are urged to follow 'eat smart' programmes rather than seeking out alternative remedies.
The staff deal with all sorts of cancers, though not all their therapies are available for every sufferer.
"There can't be reflexology for people who have clots in their legs and we wouldn't offer massages to patients with bone cancers, but we always have some sort of treatment for everyone," explains Imelda. The team also sees patients at every stage of their illness, including meeting shell-shocked people diagnosed with the disease just hours beforehand.
"We see people after their chemotherapy, after their radiotherapy and also after their treatment is over," says Imelda.
"We do this because they often think they should be on a real high (after finishing treatment), but when they realise that they're not, that is when they need the real emotional support.
The staff have to steel themselves and accept that they will lose many of the people who use the centre.
"It is difficult, but you have to learn how to deal with it," says Imelda, who assesses all the visitors as soon as they arrive at the facility.
"People say you get hardened to it, but you don't because if you get hardened, you shouldn't be here.
"However, you have to learn to control your feelings."
Unlike other centres that offer complementary therapies and counselling, Charis never closes its doors.
As a result, friendships and bonds develop in the midst of hardship. "Some people see us as a family and the centre as a home away from home," says Imelda.
"The work is tremendously rewarding, despite the obvious sadness and setbacks.
"As time went on, we started to realise that bereaved folk needed our help after the wakes and the funerals were over.
"They are welcome to come back here - and they do."
The demand for Charis's services has been steadily growing but, unlike other centres where people often have to wait a long time to be seen, there are no waiting lists at the centre - and no plans to introduce them.
"If I realise that we need more therapists, I will get them because we have the capabilities," explains Imelda.
Unlike Imelda's work with Marie Curie, where she was dealing with end-stage cancers, scores of people she has seen at Charis have survived thanks to new advances in cancer treatment.
She adds: "One of the great joys of this job is to see people who are hale and hearty.
"They still send us Christmas cards every year to thank Charis for everything."
THE BREAST CANCER SUFFERER’S STORY
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago and after two operations, six sessions of chemotherapy and 25 sessions of radiotherapy, I’m happy to say the cancer is now in remission.
After the medical side of the cancer has been treated you need to focus on the emotional side of this horrible disease. You spend so much of your time and energy fighting the cancer and keeping up appearances for loved ones and friends that you only realise when that finishes that you now need to get your head sorted.
I heard about Charis from another breast cancer sufferer and I soon discovered this was an hour a week that was purely for me! An hour of peace, relaxation and pampering. An hour when I didn’t need to worry about anything. An hour when I didn’t actually have to think — I could totally clear my mind. For me, Charis has been a big part of my cancer journey.
Thankfully medical treatment is relatively easily accessed nowadays, but Charis is one of the few places that deal with the emotional aspects of cancer as well.”
THE RELATIVE’S STORY
“At the start I didn’t understand how Charis supported the partner of a cancer sufferer, but I quickly learned how invaluable it was.
I was lost and getting more stressed, but the oasis of peace and the treatments quickly made a difference. I felt able to relax for the first time in months, maybe even years.
The guidance and advice helped me look at things differently and more clearly, and this has continued to improve.
I can see and feel the change in me, but better still my wife can see it and she has told me that it has eased the pressure on her.
We really were very fortunate in being referred as it has made such a positive difference to our lives.”
THE MALE CANCER SUFFERER’S STORY
“I’m sure that everyone who has cancer and undergoes medical treatment will experience support and attention of a quality that is exemplary and unsurpassed in its level of care and concern, but after the treatment finishes things change — the support is less manifest which allows the doubts and fears to creep back.
I discovered Charis by chance and along with my wife made our entrance unannounced, but found a warm welcome from the staff.
I have been given relaxation treatments at Charis and I talked about my emotional problems with a counsellor.
My medication can make me tired, but I have always benefited from my complementary therapies at Charis which have recharged my batteries.”
‘When you’re sick you need nurtured’
A Cookstown businesswoman has spoken of how the ‘magical’ Charis centre played a crucial role for her on her harrowing cancer journey.
Roisin Donnelly, a former marketing director for the Donnelly Car Group, was diagnosed with cancer in 2016.
She says: “It came as a shock. At the time I was working at Real, a new concept store we had opened on the Lisburn Road in Belfast.
“My treatment involved chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. It was an intensive programme.”
It was in hospital in Belfast that Roisin heard about Charis for the first time even though she doesn’t live far away.
Describing the Lough Fea centre as “a sanctuary of calm”, she says: “For me, it played a critical role. On occasions, I felt undeserving of the support. I almost felt as if I was taking someone else’s place.”
Roisin says the Charis staff are remarkable. “They recognise what you’re going through. They’ve seen it many times before and they simply help,” she says. “Whether that’s providing practical solutions such as dietary advice, or boosting your mental reserves by alleviating stress through massages, reflexology or counselling, it works.”
Roisin says the reflexology was particularly helpful, adding: “I had trouble sleeping and one hour of treatment felt like I had caught up on one week’s sleep.
“Peace and gentility are the words I would use to describe Charis and all of the team. When you are sick, you need to be nurtured. It’s nice to visit Charis with a family member too as they are on the same roller coaster ride with you and I think that’s what really makes Charis unique.
“The treatments are therapeutic for everyone who attends. It’s very different to a hospital appointment. Anyone who attends the centre feels instantly at home. The people who work here become an extension of your family.
“Charis presents an uplifting environment. Hospitals are intense. Although you know you need and want to be there for the expert care, it’s also important to find somewhere you can breathe and relax during the recovery process”.