Cancer patients are to benefit from a new centre providing emotional and practical support. Katie Baldwin met the man heading a campaign to bring the facility to Yorkshire.
When Neil McLean was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007, he could not have imagined that the experience would later lead him to a £5m project to help other cancer patients in Yorkshire.
Even when he was asked to become involved with the development of the new Maggie’s centre, his own experience with the disease wasn’t known.
It’s just one of the strange coincidences which seems to suggest the role of chairman of the Maggie’s Yorkshire board is perfect for the retired top Leeds lawyer.
Mr McLean is to lead efforts to raise money for the new centre, which is to be built in the grounds of St James’s Hospital in Leeds.
It was at the hospital’s cancer centre, the Bexley Wing, where Mr McLean had been peripherally involved in legal work during its construction.
He later received part of his cancer treatment there and six years on, will play an integral part of the creation of the new Maggie’s facility directly opposite the Bexley Wing.
Maggie’s runs a network of support centres across the country and in Leeds, it will provide free practical and emotional support for cancer patients and their families.
The charity approached Mr McLean in autumn last year – they were looking for someone to connect with businesses and, as a former managing partner at law firm DLA Piper, as well as former chair of the board of the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership who has been involved in a host of other organisations, he seemed perfect.
What they didn’t know was that the cause itself had extra special resonance for him.
“I’m not sure if they knew I had had cancer in the past, but certainly when it came out in those first conversations, it showed I very readily understood what they do and why it’s so important and there’s such a need for it,” he said.
“It helps me to have a very personal understanding of what Maggie’s do and why there is a huge need for it.”
Mr McLean, who lives near Harrogate, was diagnosed “totally out of the blue” with prostate cancer in spring 2007.
He was prompted to have a health check after his sister was diagnosed with cancer, but was not having any symptoms so didn’t expect anything to be found – though as cancer had affected many family members, he was well aware of the illness.
“It was certainly a shock, but with the family history I had got, although the actual diagnosis was a shock, I was not that surprised,” the 61-year-old says now.
“The first scan result showed there was something that needed more tests, having had that – particularly with my own family history – I thought ‘I know what that might be’.”
His cancer was fairly advanced and he underwent surgery followed by drug and hormone treatment, then radiotherapy in early 2008 – which was carried out at the then-newly opened Bexley Wing at St James’s.
“Again there’s that link to the Bexley centre – it all links together,” he added.
He describes himself as a “pragmatist” and says that attitude helped him to cope with the diagnosis.
“You never know what’s coming and I am typically one of those people who deals with what’s there,” he said.
But still, he describes his treatment as “grim”.
Looking back, he says that having a Maggie’s centre locally while he was going through that would have made a big difference.
While the care in Leeds is fantastic, he says medical staff simply don’t have time to provide that extra support.
“My daughter says she really wishes something like Maggie’s had been there for her,” he said.
As well as helping the person with cancer, the charity’s support extends to partners, children, other family and friends – people who Neil says can be somewhat forgotten about.
“For a child who is being told that a parent has cancer, or anyone affected, it’s a huge burden on people.”
Since his own diagnosis, Mr McLean had informally started offering similar support to that given by Maggie’s, by supporting friends and acquaintances who were also affected.
“That’s very much a part of what Maggie’s provides, somebody to talk to and to take you through what to expect,” he said.
“I’ve had friends and their friends speak to me and ask questions, and in a very minute way, I was doing in some way what Maggie’s do.
“When they explained what they do, I just got it straight away.”
Visits to Maggie’s centres in London and Newcastle, with their deliberately homely and non-clinical environments, galvanised his decision to support the charity even further.
“You go into a Maggie’s and there’s a laid back atmosphere, a feeling of a home from home.
“It’s the feeling of somewhere you go to rest and recuperate, mentally and physically, and get expert advice and guidance on a range of things.”
“They are just amazing places and the atmosphere is astonishing. The people who run the centres are inspirational as well.
“When you are going through the tumult of a cancer diagnosis, the value that they give is huge.”
He said that there was a gap in the support available for cancer patients, though care was very good and funding from other charities for research and specialist was widely backed, the Maggie’s charity has less of a profile in this region.
The opening of the centre would represent a “massive step forward”, he added.
“The clinical provision that you get in Yorkshire is tremendous and there are some fantastic organisations out there. There’s this middle ground which is the needs of people outside the clinical.”
After the Maggie’s Yorkshire board was put together earlier this year, members have been building the case for support, gathering information and generally laying the groundwork.
“Now we have got that information back, we will be able to start more detailed conversations with potential substantial donors to get the campaign up and running,” Mr McLean said.
“We will then be talking to businesspeople around the region.”
And, in a demonstration of leading from the front, he is currently taking part in an impressive feat in support of the Maggie’s Yorkshire campaign.
He and his daughter, Katie, are in the process of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, something he had initially planned years ago, before his cancer diagnosis stopped him.
“I have some trepidation – the walking itself I am feeling pretty good about, but the altitude issue... there’s not a lot you can do about it,” said the father-of-four and grandfather-of-two.
“But I am ready to go and I am excited about it.”
• Support Mr McLean’s fundraising for Maggie’s via www.justgiving.com/neilmmclean.