A Million for Maggie's: Leeds cancer patients making 200-mile Newcastle round trip for Maggie's support

With a £5million Maggie's Yorkshire centre planned to be built in Leeds, reporter Jonathan Brown has visited its North East equivalent to find out what the White Rose can expect and just how valuable a new centre for the region may be.

Maggie's Newcastle centre head Karen Verrill with visitor Matthew Hadden.
Maggie's Newcastle centre head Karen Verrill with visitor Matthew Hadden.

In the depths of despair, faced with life-threatening illnesses, people will do anything and go anywhere for the help they need.

People living with cancer are no different and at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, those affected by the disease thankfully have access to alternative free support at a purpose-built charity hub literally yards from the entrance to the region’s largest oncology unit.

Maggie’s Newcastle is no ordinary support centre, however. It could just as easily pass as an art gallery or contemporary museum – instead it has become a home from home for around 50,000 visitors since it opened its doors in May 2013.

The charity’s unique person-centred approach is tangible everywhere you turn in this open plan escape. There is no reception desk, no means of signing in, patients are referred to as ‘visitors’, every visitor is given their own personal mug for coffee or tea and there are cosy hideaway rooms that can be partitioned off for ‘me time’.

Until Maggie’s came along, Newcastle had nothing of the sort – people dealing with the burden of cancer would be wandering around waiting rooms or sat in hospital corridors awaiting their treatment.

And when the word got out that an alternative had arrived, estimated visitor numbers for the centre’s first year were surpassed within four months. People travelled from far and wide – some even making the 200-mile round trip from Leeds.

Former specialist breast cancer nurse at the Freeman, Karen Verrill, took over as Maggie’s Newcastle centre head when it opened three years ago, unsure as to what impact it would have.

Maggie's Newcastle centre head Karen Verrill with visitor Matthew Hadden.

“If somebody had said to me three-and-a-half years ago that a building like this would make a difference I would have said, ‘It might just be a nice place to sit’,” she said. “But I’m reminded every day as to how much people get from coming to such a non-clinical space – it’s mindblowing. Sitting here feels like a totally different level. We feel so much more able to support people.”

“One of the young men we see described it as an emotional A&E. He gets his head sorted out and that’s more important than the physical side.”

Wandering around the warm yet ultra modern building is a breath of fresh air in itself.

The interior of Maggie's Newcastle.

There is a double-height central library space, drenched with natural light and full of cubbyholes within which visitors can read in peace, a wing to the left with Maggie’s customary kitchen table meeting point and one to the right with counselling rooms and a large living area.

The centre’s banked wild flower garden, meanwhile, couldn’t feel further from the neighbouring cancer centre, which is the largest of its kind in the North of England. Two roof gardens allow even further space for exploration.

All of this is a hub for activities, simple escapism and free support. Everything from Tai Chi and art therapy to benefits advice, sessions with a psychologist and even weekly male-only meetings, in which people can share experiences while tucking into a sausage sandwich.

Cancer is indiscriminate, people of all ages and backgrounds are affected by it but few, if any, are prepared for the emotional rollercoaster they have been unwittingly strapped to.

Our campaign logo.

Clinical psychologist, Sari Harenwall, tries to equip people with the skills to deal with the impact of the disease, claiming that more than a third of those diagnosed will meet the diagnostic criteria for depression within two years.

“I compare a diagnosis to a war zone,” she said. “It’s only after the date that we realise what we have been through and can cope with the psychological crisis and impact.

“Not only do you experience a lot of losses in terms of your role but people have an identity crisis and feel lost. It can make people look at life in a different way.”

Having built Maggie’s Newcastle’s emotional support offering up from scratch, she explained that the charity’s approach is different because she doesn’t require GP referrals from visitors and does her best to cater to walk-in visitors.

Ms Harenwall added: “I’ve had people from Leeds and Northallerton that have made appointments to see me, if you can get here we will see you – that says to me there is a need in Yorkshire.”

Particular attention was paid at Maggie’s Newcastle to reflecting the region’s mining heritage in a bid to make it as inclusive as possible. Its interior is described as “less pink, more pints”.

Maggie's Newcastle.

There is original artwork on the walls depicting everything from a pub scene to the entrance to a pit, while its open spaces and floral surroundings offer a serene contrast.

In his mid 20s, former Leeds Metropolitan University student Matthew Hadden never expected that he would need cancer support.

Having moved to London to start basic training to join the Metropolitan Police, Matthew, from Darlington, started experiencing pain in his shin and went to a see a doctor when the issue became unbearable in February 2015.

Within 24 hours of an X-ray, he was rushed to the Freeman for emergency surgery on rare bone cancer osteosarcoma.

He had his left leg amputated above the knee and within two and a half weeks he was being given draining chemotherapy on a sterile hospital ward with three other people who had cancer. Maggie’s was his escape.

“I would come and they would find me asleep”, he said. “To be able to come down and meet with like-minded people and meet other people using the same thing and relaxed environment there it’s like a big student house where people come and go. This is somewhere where you can get away from the clinical side but be safe at the same time.”

Now on immunotherapy treatment, the 26-year-old added: “Maggie’s is something that should be a necessity at every cancer unit in the country, people need to get away and destress and you can’t do that on the ward.”

The Yorkshire Evening Post is aiming to ensure that the people of Leeds and wider Yorkshire have access to a centre of their own through the A Million for Maggie’s campaign.

We are urging readers to help the charity raise £1million so that people with cancer, as well as their families and friends, can access no-questions-asked support literally yards from the doors of Leeds St James’s Hospital’s bustling Bexley Wing cancer unit. The unique Maggie’s Yorkshire centre will offer free practical, emotional and social support to people in a non-clinical, friendly setting.

- See tomorrow’s Yorkshire Evening Post for an insight into how people affected by cancer in our region are already seeing support from Maggie’s make a difference to their lives.

How to get involved

We are determined to raise A Million for Maggie’s – and here’s how you can help.

You could take on a personal challenge, organise bake offs, concerts, charity quizzes or other events while donating the proceeds to our appeal.

Your company could set up a corporate partnership with the appeal, donating employees’ skills or time, or matching employee fundraising.

You can make a one-off gift of £5 or £10 to Maggie’s Yorkshire by texting MYEP99 £5 or MYEP99 £10 to 70070, or by sending a cheque payable to Maggie’s centres to, c/o Ben Feely, Maggie’s Centres, The Gatehouse, 10 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow, G11 6PA, with the reference: YEP A Million for Maggie’s.

For more click the ‘campaigns’ tab at yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk, visit maggiescentres.org/millionformaggies or follow @maggiesyorks on Twitter or see facebook.com/maggiesyorkshire.

If you have any exciting fundraisers planned, or would like any help or support, email [email protected]

Maggie's Yorkshire. Picture by Heatherwick Studio.
Maggie's Newcastle centre head Karen Verrill with visitor Matthew Hadden.
The interior of Maggie's Newcastle.
Our campaign logo.
Maggie's Newcastle.
Maggie's Yorkshire. Picture by Heatherwick Studio.