Meeting Which Changed Face Of Cancer Care

While Laura Lee was working as an oncology nurse at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, she met a patient who was to change her life. Maggie Keswick Jencks, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, was to become the inspiration for a radical new way of supporting patients.

And Lee, who became the head of the first Maggie’s Centre, would find herself at the helm of a rapidly expanding network of centres, which have transformed the experience of thousands of people with cancer.

“When I met Maggie, she had just been told she had three months to live,” Lee recalls. “At that stage you are overwhelmed with information about different sorts of treatments and we talked about how to handle all that and how best to support her children.”

As a result of their discussions the pair planned to write a book, to compile useful information, contacts and suggestions for people who had been diagnosed with cancer.

But after visiting cancer care centres in California, where her husband was a visiting professor, Maggie Jencks began to envisage a special place, which could be a home from home for people with cancer. “She became convinced that we needed a place where people could come to,” says Lee. “The crucial thing that Maggie’s does is to give a person a place where someone will sit alongside you and help you make sense of information.”

Maggie’s Centres have no receptionists, no computers and keep no files on patients – staff have to welcome every visitor personally and to listen to each individual tell their story.

“The strange thing is that people always complain about the lack of privacy in hospitals but no-one ever says that about Maggie’s, where the space is completely open,” says Lee. “People can be in tears at the end of the kitchen table with complete strangers around them and no-one seems to mind. The real issue is communication.”

Many Maggie’s staff are trained in oncology, and providing detailed information about treatment options is a crucial part of their role. But the centre’s philosophy is that there is no “right” approach. Nutritional advice, counselling, benefits surgeries, relaxation, beauty treatments and art therapy are all available. Information about supplements, diet and complementary therapies are shared.

As a trained architect with many friends who were artists and sculptors, Maggie Jencks believed the nature of the space was crucial and envisaged a place where people would be welcomed around a kitchen table.

“That is one thing which has surprised me,” Lee admits. “I didn’t think the environment would play such a huge role, but it does. I thought if you had good professional people in place that would be the most important thing, but the nature of the space plays a huge role.”

Maggie’s Centres have become beacons of innovative design with the most recently opened centre in Fife designed by the architect Zara Hadid.

The first centre was not a new built project but an imaginative conversion of a disused stable block in the grounds of the Western General Hospital. Money for the work came from Maggie’s family in Hong Kong.

Lee, who was the first director, says: “Partly the reason we called it Maggie’s Centre was because it is quite an everyday name. Maggie was unique, in that she helped get the thing started, but she didn’t think of herself as unique. She was very down-to-earth but there was a definite surge of energy when she walked into a room. I suppose you could say she was a bit of a rebel.”

As for Lee, she has surprised herself by becoming the head of a growing organisation which now has seven centres in Scotland and one in London. It is planning six more English centres and one in Hong Kong.

“When we began the original centre we did see it very much as a pilot project. I suppose it is surprising that we got so many things right. But the ideas behind it are really very simple. Recently a woman came in through the doors of the Edinburgh centre and asked for me by name. She wanted to tell me she had been in remission for ten years. I feel really privileged to have been given the opportunity to be involved in people’s lives like that.”