The London Haven
DOZENS of cancer survivors and volunteers gathered at a Fulham charity celebrating a decade of success last week. GREG BURNS paid a visit to hear their inspirational tales of courage.
A LOUD and boisterous atmosphere was the complete opposite of the usual serenity at the London Haven.
Former visitors, staff members and volunteers had flocked to the breast cancer support centre, in Effie Road, last Wednesday (16/3) to celebrate its 10th anniversary and 5,000th visitor with a special tea party.
The Fulham centre, based in an old Welsh Presbyterian Church, is usually a peaceful, calm and relaxing place for women suffering from the disease to help them deal with their illness.
It is the only centre in the UK to offer specialist care nurses and nutritional and exercise expertise and emotional support to women dealing with the shock of being diagnosed with cancer totally free of charge.
It was a complete lack of this type of support that inspired the charity's founder Sara Davenport to take a drastic career decision and try to make a difference.
The 49-year-old was stunned when her nanny Wendy Ricketts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 and appalled at the lack of emotional care offered.
As a result she sold her art dealership business three years later to buy the derelict Fulham church and set up a place where women could deal with their condition.
The rest, as they say, is history.
She said: "When Wendy got cancer I was horrified by the lack of after-care she received. I don't want to criticise hospitals because they do fantastic work and are over-stretched but it seemed like the patients were treated and then left to deal with maybe losing a breast and facing their own mortality.
"I thought maybe she had been unlucky with her experiences but then heard stories from lots of women saying the same thing.
"It was important for me to start a charity that looked at all the physical and emotional needs of women and building a place where they could come and get away from it all.
"Looking back on it, it probably was a risk to just make the decision to sell up. But the amazing thing was that, as soon as I had, I was inundated by people who wanted to help or donate.
"It was really uplifting and the charity just took off from there. To be here celebrating ten years and 5,000 visitors is truly humbling."
Mrs Ricketts, 68, said she wishes a centre like the London Haven had been up-and-running when she was diagnosed with cancer and is amazed at how she has inspired such a wonderful project.
She said: "When I was diagnosed I had no after-care once I had finished my treatment. Sara was really upset and she wanted to make a difference so sold all her paintings and started this wonderful charity.
"It is amazing to see how far it has come and how much it helps women who are in the same position I was in. When you walk in here you are welcomed with open arms and that is the key."
Opened in February, 2000, the charity, whose patron is HRH The Prince of Wales, receives no government funding and relies solely on fund-raisers or donations.
Therapies offered include yoga and Thai Chi classes and acupuncture and touch therapies along with healthy lifestyle and nutritional advice while family members can also get help to cope with a loved one being diagnosed with cancer.
With the cost helping each visitor at £1,000 it is a remarkable feat for the charity to have grown into a nationwide organisation with centres in Hereford and Leeds opened in the past four years.
Volunteers are a massive part of the charity's success and many of them are women who have benefited from its services in the past.
The Haven had only been opened for three weeks when Pam Morrow, 67, walked through the door looking for help to deal with her cancer diagnosis.
She has worked as a volunteer for eight years and said she is happy to give back to the charity that she believes saved her life.
"It was a new project when I came in and it instantly hit me as a warm and welcoming place," she said.
"I was bit apprehensive about coming at first but saw an article in the paper and thought I would give it a try. I saw a breast cancer nurse and talked to her about my treatment but also about how I was coping with the diagnosis mentally.
"That was something that no-one had spoken to me about before and it was incredibly liberating. I walked out of the door and by the time I got to the bus stop I was bawling. I think that is when I really came to terms with my situation.
"Medicine and treatment are obviously the key to beating cancer but I truly believe that coming here and being told the best foods to eat, how to exercise and how to feel well in myself cured me too."
That philosophy is shared by Mrs Davenport who said: "It is not just about people coming in and getting a cup of tea but about getting to know everything that is going on in their lives.
"Cancer is a symptom of how people live their lives and I truly believe that."
It is a humbling experience to be among the women at the London Haven.
Many have survived cancer and many tirelessly give their time to help women who are coping with the disease find peace and, hopefully, a path back to full health.
They all bring a true meaning to the word inspiration.
To find out more about the charity, to donate or give your time visit www.thehaven.org.uk.