CUPS of tea are sipped, laughter and chatter rings around the room, and at first glance, it could be just any coffee morning.

But the people gathered at York Hospital to swap their stories have one thing in common – their lives have all been blighted by the curse of cancer.

Their battle against the dreaded illness is a draining and worrying one, but throughout it all, they know help and comfort is at hand through York’s Cancer Care Centre.

Opened in 1998 following a fundraising effort run by York Against Cancer and The Press, the facility, which cost more than £120,000, provides support for cancer sufferers from across North Yorkshire – everything from complementary therapy, psychological assistance and advice on benefits to a simple arm around the shoulder.

Since its launch, thousands of people have benefited from the centre’s work and the dedication of its staff to bringing a shaft of light into the most difficult time of their lives – and the tributes patients paid to it at a coffee morning to raise money for York Against Cancer speak volumes.

Derek Dixon, from Pickering, is a regular visitor with his wife, Valerie, having been diagnosed with stomach cancer which later spread to his lungs and liver 18 months ago, and says the condition has left him coping with drastic weight loss, lack of energy and the exhausting after-effects of chemotherapy.

“I’ve called in at the centre every time I’ve been in for treatment and it’s a great place – I can’t praise it enough,” said the 78-year-old.

“The staff talk to you and make you feel welcome, you can get a cup of tea and all the information you need. Everything they do is all about helping people at a very difficult time in their lives.

“When you have cancer, the last thing you want is for people to be in your face all the time – you know you have got it and you don’t need to be reminded every few minutes. The people at the centre don’t do that – they are just fantastic.”

As Valerie explains, the centre’s work is not just geared towards helping those fighting cancer, but also their families and friends.

“If Derek is going for treatment, I tend to come here myself and there is always somebody there to listen and give me advice and support,” she says.

“It means so much because I can feel helpless. If you want some time or a bit of peace and quiet, the staff will make sure you get that. They’re happy to leave you on your own if that’s what you want, but there have been other times when we might have had bad news and come to the centre and cried, and when that happens, they are there to reassure and comfort you.

“It’s not doom and gloom. It’s all very positive and it’s been a huge help to us.”

Julie Dearing, 49, from Acomb, York, couldn’t agree more. Cancer led to the removal of her left breast a year ago, and the discovery of a cyst meant she also lost her right breast in September.

“I was struggling to cope because it just seemed to be one thing after another,” she says.

“When I started seeing a wonderful psychologist at the hospital, I also began coming to the centre just for a natter, and it really helps to meet people who have had similar experiences to me.

“Losing my right breast was heartbreaking and I thought I was never going to get away from it. But when you know other people have been through the same thing as you, you don’t feel so alone. The centre has given me a different outlook on things.

“The staff and the people I’ve met have given me a positive attitude to live and think for myself – I’ve had so much help from my own family, but it’s also great to have help from outside because they can give you a different perspective.

“All I can say about the people at the centre is that they are like angels.”

For 56-year-old Sue Midgley, from Easingwold, who has fought Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma for the last five years, the key to the centre is understanding and empathy.

“I’d tried to deal with it on my own, but I got so poorly that I could not work and was struggling,” she says.

“My doctor put me in touch with Macmillan Nurses who made an appointment for me to see a benefits officer at the centre. They were brilliant, and I started getting on so well with the people there.

“They are lovely and so caring – if they can help you in any way, they will. It’s just nice to have a place where you aren’t alone and can talk about anything, whether it’s your treatment or a personal issue.

“They know what we are going through and they put so much into running the centre. We just want to let them know how much it is appreciated.”

Run how patients want it to be run

THE man at the helm of the Cancer Care Centre looks back on more than a decade of offering support with huge pride – and with an eye on the future.

Paul Mayor has been the centre’s co-ordinator since its inception, and his watchword is that it should be run how patients want it to be run.

Together with centre administrators Michelle Kirkman and Claire Thompson, he sees first-hand how cancer can ravage people’s lives, and the team is determined to do whatever it can to ease their pain and allay their fears.

“We offer a patient information service, a psycho-oncology service – a specific brand pf psychology supporting cancer patients – complementary therapies such as aromatherapy, reflexology, reiki and massage techniques, as well as benefits advice through a link with City of York Council and a support group,” he says.

“But we’re also just a place to chat. We try to get people to drop in, use the facilities in whatever way they want and just have some quiet time. It’s there for them.

“The centre has gone from strength to strength. When we started, it was very different because we were balancing the support aspect with clinical activity, but in 2006 we got new clinical accommodation in a dedicated building next door, and that means we can purely concentrate on helping patients.

“We are constantly reviewing the services we provide. We always want to hear ideas and suggestions – as far as we are concerned, there is no template or blueprint.”

The human face of cancer treatment

WHEN York’s Cancer Care Centre became a reality, the aim was to make it a haven for patients – and 11 years on, Julie Barnie believes that is exactly what it has achieved.

The general manager of York Against Cancer – which, backed by the generosity of The Press’ readers, raised the money to create the facility – describes it as “the human face of cancer treatment”.

“The centre is there so people who may just have had bad news, or received it some time ago and are struggling, have somewhere to go which is not a clinical environment,” she says.

“Its purpose remains the same – to be a warm and inviting place where people know they will be shown empathy and where they can sit down, have a chat and get a bit of time and space.

“Patients may have been told their medication has changed or that things are not going so well or need more information – it’s a continuing journey and it’s not a nice place to be. Everybody who comes to the centre is completely different – some want to stay a little while then go home to be with their family, others want to stay longer and talk.

“When people say such nice things about what the centre does, it’s very gratifying. It’s a chance to share experiences, and the administrators Michelle and Claire have made a huge difference as they have tried to look at it from a fresh perspective.

“It’s not something every city has, so York is very lucky, and we have to help everybody who helped to set it up, including The Press’ readers. Back then, we could not have imagined how well-used it would be, and that is the ultimate testament to everybody who contributed.”

Help at hand

THE Cancer Care Centre is open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, offering complementary therapies, psycho-oncology, access to specialist nurses and other healthcare professionals with expertise in caring for cancer patients and their families, and a range of information.

It also provides access to local self-help and support groups, a service for patients with temporary hair loss, and advice on benefits and money matters.

For more information, phone 01904 721166 during opening hours or call in at the centre at York Hospital.