Group offers lifeline to cancer sufferers

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WHEN you hear about the mountains some members are having to climb, it doesn’t sound at all glib to describe Northumberland Cancer Support Group as a lifeline.

Take Sue Cantwell, who lives in Haydon Bridge, for example. Her heart was nigh-on rebuilt in what proved to be the first round of a battery of treatments.

During one of the group’s regular activity sessions, designed to give members the chance to relax, share and talk – this time round they were in Newbrough Town Hall, learning to make mosaics – Sue did just that.

She was diagnosed with cancer in July 2015, she said. “It came completely out of the blue – I thought I had a chest infection.

“It was the last week of Hexham still having an A&E department and I spent the Sunday there, while they tried to work out why I had an odd heart rate. They discovered I had a tumour round my heart.

“I went off to North Tyneside (General Hospital) for two weeks, where they discovered it was in my heart too, and that it had migrated to my right lung.”

Sue went under the knife wielded by Prof. John Dark, head of the cardiac and pulmonary transplant programme at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, in what was a mighty, 10-hour-long operation that included removing the lung.

“He couldn’t get all the tumour out of my heart,” she said. “But he reconstructed it with a vein taken from my leg, bovine tissue and Gore-Tex.

“He’s an amazing character. He’s been a heart surgeon for 30-odd years, but when I was being discharged he said, ‘It’s been great fun! I’ve never done that operation before’.”

Despite the fact she’s had both chemotherapy and radiation treatment, in July last year she was told the cancer had spread to her liver, where it was growing at an inordinately fast rate.

She went back into hospital to have a round of irreversible electroporation, in which electrical pulses are used to punch holes in the tumour so its cellular structure becomes unsustainable. “I’m patchwork woman really, but I don’t care – I was never a bikini queen anyway.”

What she does care about, though, is how hard it’s hit her family. Married with three children and a stepdaughter, the uncertainty of her future is taking its toll on all of them. So, too, is the financial strain.

Sue’s husband is older than her and as a social worker-cum-family court adviser, she was the main breadwinner.

She said: “I had a really good job, but I was on full pay for six months, then half-pay and then nothing. We’re living on half the income we had before – you don’t think about that.”

Sharing the journey with her fellow support group members has been invaluable, not least because explanations aren’t really needed.

“Being part of the group helps because you can feel very lonely outside – nobody else talks your language. Your friends will say ‘you’re going to be alright’, but you don’t know that.

“You might die, so you have to make all sorts of provisions. It’s not something you want to do, but you have to.”

Frances Davies said the issues Sue and most of her fellow members were experiencing now were the reason cancer patient Joan Ridley started the group in the first place, in 1986.

A year later it was registered as a charity and hence this year, Northumberland Cancer Support Group as we know it turns 30. The milestone will be marked with a garden party at Riding Mill’s Shepherds Dene in June.

Frances’s multiple titles – trustee, vice-chairman, publicity officer and group co-ordinator – testify to the fact there is only a small committee of people willing or physically able to help run the group.

However, between them, they manage to lay on meetings on the first and third Tuesday evenings of the month in the Education Centre at Hexham General Hospital. While one session is devoted to therapeutic relaxation, the other is attended by speakers from a diverse range of agencies dealing with health, welfare and legal matters.

Recently, a third monthly session devoted to complementary therapies was added. That takes place at Hexham’s Trinity Methodist Church Hall on the fourth Tuesday afternoon of the month.

There is also the occasional outing, to the theatre, concerts and the like, thanks to ‘social secretary’ Liz Johnston.

Frances said: “Things have changed over the years in that the information the group provided was once vital.

“But that’s not so important now as people get it from the internet and agencies are better at providing it. It’s the social side of things, the friendship, that is probably the most important thing today, and the opportunity to share.

“We do have people who don’t open up and talk about things that are bothering them, but they will come along and do an activity like this and, I suppose, they know they are surrounded by people who understand.”

Frances herself had breast cancer, and the double mastectomy that followed, 13 years ago.

She still remembers the warm welcome she received when she came along to the group for the first time and the relief of meeting people who knew just what she was going through.

“Your friends can change when you have cancer,” she said. “Some people you thought were friends can disappear off the face of the earth, while people you hardly know step up to the plate.

“And all the while you are dealing with emotional stuff that can be pressing. If you put on weight or lose your hair, some people think you should just be grateful to be alive.

“But the thing is, you feel like you are losing your identity and talking about it all is a way of coping with what’s happening to you.”

At the grand old age of 88, stalwart Laura Watson can testify to that – and the wonderful friendships she has enjoyed since she joined the group in 1993.

“I’d had cancer five years before that, so 29 years ago,” she said. “It was breast cancer and when I had the operation, the doctor said it would be back in two or three years, so I didn’t think I’d finished with it, by any means.”

One of her reasons for continuing her membership of the group was to show that people could and did recover.

Her other reasons were the activities and friendships she still enjoyed.

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