Cancer support charity Maggie’s is marking its 21st birthday with Life, a joyful exhibition of photographs celebrating people it has helped. Here, four of them share their stories.
Maggie’s Centres are the legacy of Maggie Keswick Jencks, who was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in 1993 at the age of 51. Determined that people should not ‘lose the joy of living in the fear of dying’, she dedicated her last 18 months – alongside her husband and medical team – to developing a new approach to cancer care, incorporating stress-reducing strategies and psychological support in a relaxed, caring environment.
The first Maggie’s Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1996, a year after her death, providing practical and emotional help for people living with cancer and their friends and families. There is now a network of 21 centres across the UK and in Hong Kong and Tokyo, many in award-winning buildings designed by architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers. Almost 220,000 people visited the centres last year, and for them, Maggie’s is a lifeline. The charity’s president Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, says: ‘These centres are the most uplifting places you could ever be in and you come out feeling better. That is surely the point of Maggie’s – you see so many smiling faces.’
To mark the organisation’s 21st anniversary, photographer Zoë Law has captured images of 21 people it has helped, reflecting their resilience and joy during and beyond cancer. An exhibition of these photographs, Life (also available as a book), will be at Christie’s, London, from Tuesday 12 to Thursday 14 September. As the Duchess of Cornwall says in the foreword of the book, ‘I am always struck by the positive and courageous outlook of the people I meet at Maggie’s – qualities that shine through in these inspiring photographs.’
For more information, visit maggiescentres.org
‘I’ve discovered a new zest for life’
Marie Downes, 43, with her daughter Olivia
‘When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 I had a crushing feeling of absolute horror. Thankfully I had a lovely consultant who told me she’d be tackling the cancer head on. When it returned as secondary breast cancer six years later – shortly after my husband had left – I went to Maggie’s Dundee Centre for support. Going there with my daughter Olivia, I have drawn strength from knowing that there are others going through the same thing as me.
‘I’m a professional musician – I’ve put on two fundraising concerts at the centre – and music has also been therapy for me. With cancer treatment you feel you’re losing control of your body, and it’s empowering to use it to create something. I feel I can express my hurt through my clarinet. If anything, I’m playing better than ever.’
Marie’s daughter Olivia, 18, adds: ‘After Mum’s second diagnosis, I spent hours researching on the internet and hardly sleeping. But her bravery in dealing with cancer has given me perspective. The worst thing I could have imagined has happened to us, so other things don’t seem so daunting any more. Mum’s humour and courage continually inspire me.’
‘I am happy within myself now’
Virginia ‘Ginny’ Ring, 69
‘After finishing a year of treatment for breast cancer in 1999, I decided to live my life to the full. But in 2012 I learned that it had come back in my right breast, and it then moved into my spine and pelvis. It was a terrible shock – I thought that was the end of me.
‘However, despite some dark and sad times since, I have also had the most wonderful experiences, including the amazing photo shoot with Zoë – where I felt like a star! – singing in the Maggie’s choir on Songs of Praise and becoming a regular contributor to BBC Gloucestershire.
‘Maggie’s Cheltenham Centre has helped me through a dark tunnel: now I have come out of the other side and can live well every day with cancer. If I was to die tomorrow I could say that I am very content with my life. I have a lovely husband, daughter and grandchildren, and I’ve travelled everywhere I want to go. I am happy within myself.’
‘I’m living in the moment’
Lizzie Hall, 27, with her friend Faye
‘My doctors had told me I was too young to have bowel cancer, so my diagnosis at the age of 24 was a total shock. Originally from Durham, I went to university in Dundee and stayed there after graduating, taking a job as an admin assistant while I decided on a career. I don’t have any family in Dundee, but my partner and my best friends are here, and I wanted to keep a sense of normality. My friends have supported me so well, including Faye, who was always there for me, visiting me in hospital and listening to my worries.
‘The treatments, operations and side-effects were long and gruelling. After my colostomy reversal I really struggled to get back into a routine and felt I had lost my confidence to go back to work. My specialist nurse recommended Maggie’s Dundee Centre and at first I went for advice, then later I took part in some of the courses.
‘Cancer changed my outlook on life and I knew that I wanted to help people in a similar situation. After spending so much time in hospital, I decided to study for a nursing degree. My cancer is in remission but I still visit Maggie’s regularly as I’ve made good friends there. I love their yoga group – it helps me both physically and mentally.’
‘Maggie’s helped me to manage my fear’
Samantha Thornton, 51
‘I was diagnosed with two lymphomas in 2002 and I spent seven years fighting them before finally going into remission in 2009, after an autologous stem cell transplant. Seven years is a very long time and sometimes the fear was so overwhelming that it was difficult to breathe. Learning to meditate at Maggie’s West London helped manage that.
‘My check-ups confirm that I am still in remission and maybe I was lucky to find the true “meaning of life” largely because of my illness. I fulfilled my dream to become a sculptor, working in both bronze and stone, and wrote a book, Pog: Weathering the Storm [Pog is Samantha’s nickname], which recounts my seven-year journey to wellness. The profits from the book went to Maggie’s.
‘Most of all, however, I have been surrounded by love and have been able to witness my children Atalanta and Marcus and my stepson Tom turning into the most wonderful young adults. I have also just celebrated 20 years of marriage to my rock, my lover and my friend, Guy.’