Maggie’s at the Cancerkin Centre

Claudia Mayer, 63, from London, explains why cancer patients need support when their treatment has finished.

Two years ago, in May 2015, I noticed that my right breast seemed to have changed in appearance, it was drooping and looked different, so I made an appointment to have it checked. My GP agreed something was wrong but didn’t say what and referred me to a consultant at the hospital early the following week. The breast cancer system is very efficient and I had a mammogram, an ultrasound scan and a biopsy before seeing a specialist. I had prepared myself for bad news so wasn’t overly surprised when the specialist told me I had stage three breast cancer with multiple tumours in my right breast which had affected my right armpit lymph nodes and I would need a mastectomy. My reaction to this news was pragmatic – due to my age and the fact that I was happily married, it would be a wrench to lose my breast but as it was diseased, I didn’t want to keep it either. I remember not wanting to prolong things, I wanted my affected breast and the cancer gone as soon as possible.

After the mastectomy, I was left to recover for about six weeks before beginning a course of intravenous chemotherapy. The effects on my body were hideous – I lost all my hair including my eyelashes and eyebrows and my mouth was so painful and sore I had to drink through a straw. I still have to be careful which toothpaste I use now because my mouth is still quite sensitive, but it has improved since the treatment.

I had a course of chemotherapy every three weeks from July until December 2015. It was a very difficult time I had lots of sickness and felt dreadful throughout. There was a week at the end of each cycle when I felt well enough to do a bit of work, which I think kept me sane as I love what I do. My husband and I run an Asian-led theatre called the Tara Theatre in Earlsfield, London, and I work as a designer for costumes, props and set. I was raised in India and enjoy researching Indian culture for my designs. My husband, Jatinder Verma, is the artistic director, he works so hard and I’m very proud of the fact that he was awarded an MBE recently for Tara Arts and services to diversity in the arts. The theatre is for everyone – we’ve put shows on at The National Theatre and we tour too – it’s an expression of diversity.

Jatinder was very supportive throughout my treatment and I found it helpful to have somebody that I wanted to protect; I didn’t want to burden him and this attitude kept me strong. I remember having tremendous mood swings when I was having chemotherapy and poor Jatinder was on the receiving end a few times. Thankfully he took it very well as it was totally out of character and we can laugh about it now. I found it quite significant that while I was being treated for breast cancer the Tara Theatre building was demolished and rebuilt. It meant Jatinder could immerse himself in the theatre project to take his mind off what was happening to me.

My first encounter with Maggie’s at the Cancerkin Centre was when I was in the Royal Free Hospital after my surgery. Luckily for me it’s where they’re based. Two volunteers came to visit and they brought me a bra with some stuffing which was very useful and something I hadn’t considered before then. We chatted and they advised me to ‘mourn’ my breast – to accept the loss and move forward. They told me all about the charity and invited me to join one of the numerous classes they offered when I was ready, I’d not given much thought to how I would feel after my surgery but their visit raised my spirits so much that I went to see them after my treatment had ended.

And it’s been an absolute life-saver because Maggie’s at the Cancerkin Centre is a place where everyone has a shared experience which is comforting in itself. A cancer diagnosis can make you feel very lonely and the charity offers a world of kindness and acceptance as well as a present and a future. I honestly don’t know where I’d be without them and can’t praise them enough.

While you’re going through your treatments you focus on getting better – that’s your purpose. Afterwards, I found I was floundering because I wasn’t well enough to carry on as before. I wasn’t sure what I could do and the slow realisation of what I’d gone through left me feeling vulnerable, fearing the cancer would return. After my therapy, I was given strong steroids which caused joint pain. Maggie’s at the Cancerkin Centre’s advice was to deal with the pain by keeping moving, and suggested their free yoga and Pilates classes. I didn’t feel embarrassed at all because the classes are tailored for all abilities and all levels of recovery and so it’s fine if you can’t keep up or don’t have much hair – nobody judges you. Physically, it was important for my recovery, I saw it as a treatment and not as a leisure pursuit. I did a yoga class and afterwards I wept after finding how little of it I could do, and at that point I needed some help.

I felt the need for kindness after the assault, both physical and mental, of the chemotherapy. The treatment is so reductive and monstrous I felt it had ripped through my body and left me bewildered and lost. The nine months or so of symptom/diagnosis/treatment had been a whirlwind – every experience was new and afterwards I was plonked back down to earth back in my life but everything was different. I think it’s quite common to descend into depression after treatment and I was well on the way to that. Thank goodness for my counsellor; she was gentle and wise and helped me come to terms with my new situation and to make a strategy to deal with my new relationship with life, death, illness and fear. It was one-to-one and I had four sessions.

I now go to the centre three times a week for regular classes of Pilates, tai chi and yoga. You can just turn up and join in any of the sessions, it’s wonderful. And it’s great to talk to other people who have had similar experiences to you, it’s cathartic and liberating. Especially as there are no expectations at all – you can turn up for a class and then leave or you can engage with others if you want to it’s completely up to you. Just having the regularity of going there was a help and gave my life structure. A year on and I am in a very different place.

Currently I’m busy with work and preparing for the theatre’s winter season. I see the surgeon and oncologist every four months or so for checks and things look positive, I have my fingers crossed! I was so pleased to hear that Cancerkin has merged with Maggie’s so that people with different types of cancer can receive the same level of support, kindness and care as I have.

 

Total Raised: £11,421

THE FACTS

  • Earlier this year Maggie’s merged with Cancerkin to form Maggie’s at the Cancerkin Centre which is based at the Royal Free Hospital in North London. Both charities will work together to provide services and support networks to patients with all forms of cancer, as well as their family and friends. Visitors will also have access to all the additional services that Maggie’s provides, including courses on managing stress and returning to work after cancer.
  • A range of complementary therapies are available including massage, reflexology, reiki, yoga, Alexander technique, dance exercise, acupuncture, spiritual healing and Pilates.Group and one-to-one counselling sessions are offered as well as treatment for lymphedema – all services are free of charge.

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