Cancer survivor backs Maggie's fundraising appeal following her support through diagnosis

When Carolyn Aitken took her mum to Maggie's in between radiotherapy appointments in Dundee, she never expected she would return more than a decade later with her own breast cancer diagnosis.

Wednesday, 30th November 2016, 8:59 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th December 2016, 12:32 pm
Carolyn Aitken has been attending Maggies for 12months. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

A chance glimpse in the bathroom mirror was all it took for the 44-year-old to notice a dimple on her left breast that set her off on a long road paved by scans and cancer treatments.

Her GP referred her for tests at Spire Murrayfield Hospital last August but Carolyn knew from the start that something was wrong.

She said: “I was pretty sure straight away that the only thing it could be was a tumour.

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Archtect drawings of the proposed building at Maggie's Centre, Edinburgh Richard Murphy ARchitects

“Even before I left hospital that first day, I was told there was no doubt in their minds that I had cancer.”

It was not the first time Carolyn had been faced with the horror of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Her mother Maureen discovered she had the disease in 2004 aged 59, but doctors then told Carolyn she had nothing to worry about.

Amidst the shock of diagnosis and the blur of treatment, Carolyn’s constant support has been Maggie’s.

Archtect drawings of the proposed building at Maggie's Centre, Edinburgh Richard Murphy ARchitects

The drop-in centre at the Western General Hospital has offered emotional and practical support to more than 420,000 cancer patients and their families since it opened in 1996.

The Evening News has joined forces with myeloma patient Lisa Stephenson and Maggie’s for the Buy a Brick appeal, which aims to raise £750,000 for an extension which will allow the charity to support more people.

The £1.2m extension will include three new rooms for therapy and activities to allow the centre to welcome an additional 5,000 patients per year.

Plans have been drawn up by renowned city architect Richard Murphy, who worked on the design for the original building.

The Buy a Brick appeal has already raise more than £37,000 since its launch earlier this month – with donations for £2,620 pouring in since the beginning of this week alone.

Whether it is singing in the choir or simply having a cup of tea, Maggie’s has given Carolyn the space to heal her head and heart after the shock of her cancer treatment.

She said: “I knew about Maggie’s because my mum had breast cancer and we had been once or twice to visit the centre at Ninewells Hospital.

“I went thinking, ‘Oh I’ll go and see what the place is like and get some pamphlets,’ but once I was there I saw it was much more than that.

“The first time I set foot in the place was on their birthday, so it was utter chaos.

“Yet I still got the same amazing level of care.

“Within ten or 15 minutes of gentle chat, I had an appointment to come back and all sorts of things were suddenly available to me.

“It’s amazing what they do. They get that you are overwhelmed but you don’t really realise what your brain is trying to do to process the information.”

Carolyn endured six gruelling rounds of chemotherapy before doctors removed her left breast in February.

She returned to have radiotherapy and reconstructive treatment from her mastectomy at the Western General Hospital, bringing her active treatment to an end.

Carolyn was living alone in Morningside when she was diagnosed, as her family are based in Perth, so Maggie’s offers her a place where she can have company without feeling like she is a burden on her friends and family.

Despite being very close to her mum, Maureen, 72, and her sister, Suzanne, 42, she still finds it hard to discuss her cancer with them.

Carolyn said: “You are really aware that it is really hard for our friends and family. I imagine they feel quite hopeless and don’t know what to do.

“You are in a bit of a cancer bubble. If you are keeping up appearances then you can carry it for a bit but it is exhausting to carry the burden all the time.

“The doctors deal with your aches and pains, while Maggie’s deals with your head and heart.

“It’s nice to do something normal and feel normal.”

She is now easing back into work as a tax accountant at an Edinburgh firm and trying to take each day as it comes.

The family are recovering from the fall-out of two breast cancer diagnoses and Carolyn’s sister is having early screening to check for any sign of the disease.

Her mum Maureen is doing well and the disease has not returned.

Carolyn said: “I consider myself lucky, despite all of it. I might not have spotted it if I hadn’t noticed it in the mirror that day. I’m lucky it was picked up and treated early.

“I’m lucky to have the centre most of all.”

Donations ranging from £5 to £500 have poured in for the Buy a Brick appeal since its launch on November 7 to coincide with the 20th birthday of the Edinburgh Maggie’s Centre.

The campaign received a major boost in its first weeks when city fundraiser Lisa Stephenson raised £19,000 hosting a “Glitteratea” at the Sheraton Hotel.

The mum-of-two took time out of treatment for myeloma to organise the glamorous afternoon tea and fashion extravaganza for more than 300 guests, which included a fashion show where cancer survivors and oncology nurses strutted their stuff in the latest threads.

The appeal has even attracted praise in Holyrood, where more than 30 politicians from all parties backed a motion tabled by Lothian Conservative MSP Miles Briggs in praise of the campaign.

Backing the appeal, Carolyn urged people in Edinburgh to dig deep to help Maggie’s expand. She said: “I just think Maggie’s is brilliant. I love it there.

“The NHS is amazing but it is so busy and overwhelmed that you can feel anonymous.

“I know a few folk have said to me, ‘I’m not a Maggie’s person’. But it’s there for everyone.”

Carolyn appeared as one of the key case studies in a popular BBC documentary to celebrate Maggie’s 20th birthday earlier this month.

Building Hope: The Maggie’s Centres featured prominent architects Frank Gehry and Richard Murphy discussing the importance of architecture as a recovery tool, as well as moving testimonies from friends and family of Maggie Keswick Jencks, who dreamed up the idea for a centre.

Sadly Maggie died of breast cancer before the first centre was built but her legacy lives on as the charity prepares to open a 20th centre in Forth Valley.

Building Hope is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.