Maggie’s allows sufferers time out from cancer

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THE door opens and Jim Clark stops stirring the pot of soup he’s been tending. He turns and, with a smile, gestures to the wooden table which looks out over the pretty garden.

“Cup of tea?,” he asks.

Morton and Gina enjoy the peaceful garden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Morton and Gina enjoy the peaceful garden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

On the table are piles of booklets with serious sounding titles and pages of advice, a few glossy magazines and a box of biscuits. The cups of tea and biscuits are never in short supply.

Nor, sadly, is there any shortage of people who enter Maggie’s Edinburgh for the first time, tentative, wary, often terrified of what might lie ahead.

Jim busies himself with the soup, the tea, the biscuits, some tidying up. No pressure to talk here, he insists. Years of experience have taught him to read when someone has come to the former stable block beside the Western General to chat or to just sit at that long table and look out the window.

Morton and Gina McBurnie from Newtongrange pull up chairs. Morton, 65, has a weary, worried air. As he talks of Gina, 61, and her gruelling battle against lung cancer – diagnosed in May, it’s crept into the adrenal glands – a lump has lodged in his throat and there’s a sudden irritation in his eye.

When he looks at her head swathed in the cancer patient’s badge of honour, a patterned head scarf, there’s a pained helplessness that makes the heart ache. Gina’s treatment is ongoing but he knows what cancer can do. After all, he explains, “I’m an undertaker.”

There’s a bitter laugh at that and a helpless shrug. The mood could disintegrate, but that’s not what tends to happen at Maggie’s. Instead Jim has the tea, another biscuit disappears from the box, and Gina gently touches his arm. Outside the breeze caresses the bushes and the moment passes.

People who have been to the centre will recognise that as the Maggie’s effect. And it’s been like that for precisely 18 years now. Ever since Maggie’s opened its doors with a fresh approach to supporting cancer patients and their families, it has seamlessly soothed and paved the way forward for countless folk like them.

Sometimes, Jim admits, there is no happy ending. But increasingly often, there is. Always, there’s kindness and straight talking, no frills, pure honesty, understanding.

His ties with Maggie’s can be traced back longer than most. He was there not long after it opened with his sick sister, Isa. Soon he’d return with his partner Carol, who battled ovarian cancer for seven years before it took her too.

He’s lost a brother to lung cancer and his mother too. As if they were not enough, breast cancer heaved its misery on another sister. Cancer doesn’t mind how much misery it inflicts on some families.

For that reason Maggie’s Edinburgh might be the last place Jim might want to be. Instead – a sign of the powerful comfort the facility brings – it’s where he feels most comfortable.

“I used to bring Isa here, she had lung cancer. I got to know what happened here and the benefits it brought.

“She got great benefit from it. She was a lovely sister.”

When partner Carol was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Jim, from Granton, knew there was support there for him too if he wanted it. But like many blokes, it was enough to feel Maggie’s safety net below him and the support of the staff and volunteers around him.

Today the invisible bond with the loved ones he’s lost brings him back to make tea and stir the soup. Even though there are days when his guts are in knots.

“When you see the children...,” Jim, a doting grandfather, swallows hard. “There’s a wee boy, ten years old, he came in a few weeks ago. He’s brilliant.

“It can be difficult sometimes. A few years ago a lady passed away, she used to come with her daughter and I’d get a big cuddle from her.

“I was so upset at that. But it’s a fantastic place to come. There’s a lot of laughter and fun. It’s not a sad place.”

Maggie’s Edinburgh was the dream of innovative garden designer Maggie Keswick Jencks who found herself trying to absorb news of her cancer diagnosis in a bleak hospital corridor with no-one to talk to.

She created the blueprint for a place that would offer free relaxation therapies, nutritional advice and support, where patients and families could just sit at a big wooden table overlooking a garden and chat and feel that they are not alone.

Designed by leading architect Richard Murphy, the emphasis was on a building that flowed in harmony with the pretty garden outside, inside homely, colourful and bathed in natural light.

Since then, it has seen thousands of patients and families. Around 90 people pass through the doors every day – so many that now plans are in place for a £1m extension.

Many visitors – like Morton and Gina – drop in between chemotherapy sessions or while waiting for a blood result.

It’s the friendly atmosphere they like, says Morton, who’s hoping that Gina will soon be well enough so they can go on a nature walk organised by the centre. “I don’t like to talk much about my feelings,” he adds. “But here, I feel comfortable.”

“Maggie’s is a welcome home from home,” nods Jim. “It’s not a sad place, we try to keep it as happy as we can.

“It’s a lovely building, but if a building hasn’t got the staff, it’s just a building. The staff are incredible, we put film stars and footballers up on a pedestal, it’s them we should be putting on a pedestal.”

Maggie’s formula has been so successful, from the carefully selected furnishings to the help on offer, that centres were soon dotted around the country. This 18th year – traditionally a landmark “coming of age” – coincides with the opening of the 18th Maggie’s Centre in Scotland. Others, all based on the original Edinburgh centre, have sprung up from London to Hong Kong.

Sadly, many who visit for help often have stories of visiting in the past with friends or relatives on their own cancer journey. Others saw its benefits and helped raise funds, not knowing one day they’d too need its help.

Like Frances Crow, 63, of Dean Village, who was drawn to Maggie’s ten years ago by chance and adopted it as her travel business’s “charity of choice”.

“I thought it was amazing. Then five years ago my sister was diagnosed with cancer. She came here and got the most fantastic support.”

Her ties with Maggie’s strengthened last December when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Maggie’s, she says, is a “sanctuary” where there are people who understand precisely what she is going through – from the emotional stresses that made her lash out to the physical impact. “I could come here and put into words what I was feeling,” she adds.

It’s the things most of us wouldn’t realise could be distressing that Maggie’s staff seem to grasp, she says. “They don’t say ‘how are you?’ I’d had major bowel surgery, chemo, been sick, couldn’t eat... how am I?!,” she despairs.

“People say ‘Oh, but you are looking fine’ but they don’t know what you’ve been through. Here, they just know.”

Many end up chatting with Centre Head Andrew Anderson. In 14 years at Maggie’s Edinburgh, he’s been part of the positive impact it brings.

“People tell me it is their sanctuary, a place where they feel they can truly be themselves and let down all barriers,” he says. “Others say walking through the door is like breathing a sigh of relief, for some having a cup of tea at the table with others in a similar situation is exactly what they need to bring some normality to their lives and ease their fear.

“Maggie’s Centres are simply extraordinary places where there are far more laughs than tears, but when tears come then that’s perfectly okay,” he adds.

Founder Maggie Keswick Jencks died before the Edinburgh centre she had meticulously planned opened. However he believes her vision has been achieved.

“She wanted people to feel more empowered when cancer arrived in their lives by giving them the tools they needed to help themselves while, in her own words, not ‘losing the joy of living in the fear of dying’,” he adds.

“At Maggie’s we help people to find a way of living with cancer no matter what the outcome. In the next 18 years I believe the kind of support we offer will become more important and more sought after.”

Frances, meanwhile, finds blessed sanctuary every time she visits. “It’s your haven and there are angels who fly around here and sit on your shoulder.

“They are special people.”

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Plans for £1m extension

Designer Maggie Keswick Jencks’ created the blueprint for the first Maggie’s Centre after being diagnosed with cancer in 1988.

Maggie’s Edinburgh was opened in 1996. A statue of Maggie stands at the entrance.

Maggie’s Edinburgh needs around £500,000 a year to run. To mark its 18th birthday, businesses across the city are being encouraged to show support by sponsoring a day at Maggie’s Edinburgh.

Plans have now been revealed for a major £1m extension to the current facility to help cope with rising demand for its services.