Before coming to New Zealand I spent a large part of my career as a cancer geneticist and had the privilege of ‘walking’ with patients and families on their cancer journey. For many, dealing with a diagnosis of cancer involves a rollercoaster of emotions, as people try to adjust to the changes that cancer brings to their lives. Everyone has their own way of coping and while conventional cancer treatments, such as surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy play an important role in the battle against cancer, patients and families also need a welcoming and caring environment, where they can receive support, information and practical advice.
Ironically, my mother fought a long battle with cancer and spent a lot of time receiving information, undergoing investigations and treatment in and out of a variety of health care settings. During that often traumatic ‘journey’ I remember thinking there must be more we can do to provide a supportive environment for cancer patients and their families
As part of my own personal exploration of ‘caring environments’ I was delighted to be a part of the Clinical Board which supported the building of a Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre in Swansea, Southwest Wales. This Centre and others located internationally provides a calming space in which newly diagnosed, recently relapsed, and terminally ill cancer patients and their family members can seek support and information on their illnesses. Whether it’s practical advice on nutrition, a support group, a t’ai chi class or a relaxation course, or simply meeting people around the kitchen table who are going through a similar illness.
Founded by Maggie Keswick, who died of breast cancer in 1995, and her husband Charles Jencks, Maggie’s Centre was created with the belief that patients and their loved ones can take an active role in their treatment and that a person’s immediate environment has a direct impact upon their well-being. Maggie strongly believed that people with cancer needed to be informed, helped with stress reducing strategies, psychological support and the opportunity to meet other people in similar circumstances.
When mum was ill I set myself the task of finding out all I could about her illness and treatment options. Looking back this array of knowledge provided me with a sense of control and I found myself going from a passive to an active participant in her care. There was also great comfort in sharing our cancer experience and learning from what others had gone through – it really helped to know we were not alone. I guess we were also fortunate that we had the resources to gather and assimilate such knowledge. But we knew that knowledge alone was not enough.
Maggie’s Centre at Swansea was designed by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the greatest Japanese architects of the 20th Century. Kisho, who passed away in 2007, based his design on the concept of the cosmic whirlpool, representing a strong symbol of life, with everlasting forces swirling around a still centre.
What began as an idea and a drawing on paper, materialised into the amazing building that exists in Southwest Wales today.
“The new Maggie’s Centre will come out of the earth and swing around with two arms like a rotating galaxy. One side will welcome the visitor and lead to the other side, which embraces nature, the trees, rocks and water. A place set apart, as she said of a garden. The connection to the cosmos and contacts between East and West – two motives that Maggie and I shared – are in the design. I hope she would have liked it.”
All Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres are beautiful and inspirational – designed to facilitate the many stages of the healing process. At the Swansea Centre I remember the glorious vegetable gardens overlooking Swansea Bay and recall collecting peas as I spoke to a cancer patient about life, children, hope and fear and the value of having somewhere to come that knew her, listened and made her feel welcome.
I think every cancer patient needs a Maggie’s Centre – a place that cares, a table to sit around and drink tea – where people know your name. A place where people can find the strength to live with hope and joy in the face of a cancer diagnosis. All patients and their families deserve this support.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring Maggie’s Centre to New Zealand? And wouldn’t it be great if all chronic disease sufferers and their families had access to this quality care?
Click here to find out more about the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres and to read Maggie’s inspirational story titled “a view from the front line”.
Director, Ko Awatea