Laura Lee: Maggie’s Centres

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Cancer charity Maggie’s was the vision of one woman, Maggie Keswick Jencks, but in the 19 years since the first Maggie’s Centre opened in Edinburgh, it has been another woman who has nurtured, encouraged and developed the programme of ground-breaking cancer care which has made the organisation globally renowned.

Chief Executive Laura Lee, who was once Maggie’s cancer nurse, has never forgotten the blueprint set out by Maggie Keswick Jencks as she lived with advanced cancer for more than two years. Originally from Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, Laura has instead ensured that those values remain central to every aspect of Maggie’s, even while steering the organisation on a journey of unprecedented growth.

Today, there are 18 Centres in the UK, online and abroad including one in Hong Kong. By the time the organisation celebrates its 20th birthday next November there will be 20 centres offering free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer as well as their family and friends.

The 20th centre will be the eighth in Scotland and will open in the grounds of the Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, meaning there will be a Maggie’s Centre offering support in every main NHS cancer treatment hospital north of the border.

When the centre opens next year it will of course be a reason to celebrate, but the moment will also mark a milestone for a charity born from one woman’s desire to help and brought to maturity by the drive, commitment, perseverance and aspiration of another.

Laura Lee said: “I will certainly allow myself a moment of happy reflection next year when our Forth Valley Centre opens.

“I am incredibly proud of what has been achieved, but I am only one person and it has been a huge team effort.

“It has also been a lot of hard work, but I am satisfied that Maggie would be content that we have stayed true to her vision while also thrilled to think we have come so far in such a short space of time.

“What I am more proud of than anything though, and I am sure Maggie would have agreed, is the proof that what we have created works, and that over the last 20 years the support Maggie’s offers has had a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands.”

When Laura first met Maggie, she was attending an Edinburgh cancer clinic with her husband Charles. She had just been told she had three months to live.

In the months which followed, Laura saw Maggie once a week and spoke to her on the phone. Laura said: “Our rapport and our friendship grew out of that and, incredibly, she went on to live for another two years. Of course, it was during this time that she decided to find a way of helping others. She wanted to know where to get help for her children, her husband and herself and realised it was simply missing.

“Her initial plan was for a handbook outlining and telling people how to access help.

“After a trip to America though, where she discovered The Wellness Community and the support they offered to people with cancer, she decided what was needed was not a handbook but a centre.” Together with her husband Charles, Maggie picked out an old stable block in the grounds of Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital as the perfect location. She worked on the plans for the first Maggie’s Centre until the day before she died, at the age of 53, in 1995.

Laura was left with the responsibility of carrying on her work and in November 1996 she proudly opened the doors of the first Maggie’s Centre. She said: “After Maggie died, it all got incredibly scary.

“I had loads of support from her husband and family as well as the health team I worked with, but it was tough without Maggie there to constantly ask as a patient if we had got it right.” The need for a place such as Maggie’s soon became quickly apparent as the Edinburgh Centre became a haven for hundreds of people affected by cancer.

Laura said: “The first patients through the door though were the same breast cancer patients I had been seeing as a nurse in the chemotherapy units, some who I had known a very long time, and they told me things about their lives that they had never told me in hospitals.

“There was something about the building which let people talk about their feelings. I wasn’t prepared for that but that’s what Maggie had anticipated.”

In the years that followed Maggie’s grew at a phenomenal rate with centres opening across the UK and beyond, offering an evidence-based programme of support including drop-in with cancer support specialists, benefits advice and nutrition workshops.

Out of necessity Laura too had to grow – from a shy 25 year-old cancer nurse to the leader of a dynamic and pioneering global organisation.

She said: “I do sometimes still wonder how I came to be part of the world I am in, but it all goes back to Maggie’s vision.

“If she hadn’t known exactly what was needed and people hadn’t responded by coming to the Centres and telling me the relief they felt on finding the support we offer, then I wouldn’t be here today.”

To find out more about Maggie’s and to find a Centre near you, please visit www.maggiescentres.org

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