A Million for Maggie's: Leeds woman's journey from hospital ward worker to incurable cancer patient

Thousands of people in Leeds face a life-changing cancer diagnosis every year and, as we launch our ambitious A Million for Maggie's fundraising campaign this week, one woman has spoken of her unwitting move from NHS worker to cancer patient.

Kate Burke pictured at Leeds Beckett University. PIC: James Hardisty
Kate Burke pictured at Leeds Beckett University. PIC: James Hardisty

With a day job helping people to recuperate on cancer wards in Leeds, hospital workers might never foresee the day they become patients themselves.

Respiratory physiotherapist Kate Burke, who lives in Kirkstall, spent years working with top cancer consultants in supporting patients at Leeds St James’s Hospital.

But after treatment from fellow physios for blinding back pain failed in November 2011, the 35-year-old was rushed to hospital after fracturing a vertebrae in her spine while harmlessly drying her hair.

Kate Burke pictured at Leeds Beckett University. PIC: James Hardisty

Scans revealed that what had seemed simple aches and pains were actually symptoms of cancer that had developed in her breasts before spreading to her liver, lungs and bones.

The reality of a diagnosis of incurable stage four secondary breast cancer at a relatively young age began to dawn on her.

“It was pretty devastating,” she said. “I assumed I had a slipped disc or something quite innocuous but actually it was quite serious and the first I knew about it was when one of the Macmillan nurses came to speak to me - when they come to speak to you, you know.”

By the following January, Kate was attending chemotherapy appointments - treated by the consultants she worked under on the very wards that were her workplace.

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“If I’m on the ward being treated, a lot of my colleagues who are often my friends, know what’s going on with me before I do, which is difficult,” she said.

“It’s a very strange situation that the consultants I used to work with on oncology are the people who are treating me.”

Having invested her working life in helping others in sterile hospital settings, she was quickly starting to find that her two worlds of work and personal health were becoming inseparable.

Gruelling chemotherapy treatment meant that during the early months after her diagnosis, Kate would often attend an appointment and then go back to her nearby office to wait to be called in.

Kate Burke pictured at Leeds Beckett University. Picture by James Hardisty.

Nevertheless work became a focus. Five years on from her diagnosis, having recently turned 40, Kate is still working full time predominantly as a lecturer in physiotherapy at Leeds Beckett University.

She explained: “Work for me has been really quite an important thing for me to do. It’s about having that support and something normal to do - and not having to talk about cancer all the time.

“Going to hospital every two weeks and being a patient is a full-time occupation and I didn’t want to be sucked into that at 35.”

Her role as a lecturer presents its own challenges, with students often working on placement in the wards she is being treated, while her intensive chemo sees her contending with draining three-week cycles of vomiting and diarrhoea.

An artist's impression of Maggie's Yorkshire. Picture by Heatherwick Studio.

Kate’s condition is constantly being monitored and, while cancer drugs have halted the disease progressing any further over the last year, life will never be the same again.

“A lot of it is acceptance,” she said. “It’s a new normal for me now and it’s a long process. It’s like the acceptance of grief really.

“The hardest part is other people’s expectations. I’m upbeat and positive, I work and sometimes people forget I’ve got stage four incurable cancer and I do have to cancel things at the last minute.

“We all look so well and healthy and people can find it difficult - they get frustrated and I get frustrated.”

Those people closest to Kate are a major source of comfort. She has met hundreds of fellow cancer patients, many her own age through the ‘Younger Breast Cancer Network’ Facebook forum, but the camaraderie in times of difficulty has an unintended dark side.

During five years of cancer treatment Kate estimates that she has seen around 150 people she has spoken to through cancer forums pass away.

Kate Burke pictured at Leeds Beckett University. PIC: James Hardisty

“You don’t know how much time you’ve got. We have all seen so many of our friends die as well - that is really, really hard. You don’t want to get too close to people because you know that relationship ends,” she said.

“For a 40-year-old woman it’s not normal to be seeing people you know die. You have to protect yourself.”

Support comes in many ways, and despite experiencing such loss, Kate is hopeful that more will be done for people with cancer and their families in Leeds and Yorkshire.

This week the YEP has launched its ambitious A Million for Maggie’s campaign, which is 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 St James’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.

For Kate, the prospect of having such support away from “airport lounge hospital waiting rooms” and colleagues she fears bumping into is doubly exciting.

Kate, who is backing A Million for Maggie’s, added: “I would like to go somewhere that’s a safe space that isn’t the clinical environment - that’s what appeals to me, the kitchen table environment that’s not the hospital - with all the services it offers as well.

“Maggie’s is neutral, I wouldn’t know anybody and that for me would be brilliant.”

- See tomorrow’s Yorkshire Evening Post for a first-hand insight into what Leeds and wider Yorkshire can expect from a new multimillion pound Maggie’s centre and how people with cancer in other areas have been boosted by the charity’s work.

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]

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Kate Burke pictured at Leeds Beckett University. Picture by James Hardisty.
An artist's impression of Maggie's Yorkshire. Picture by Heatherwick Studio.