Happy haven is offering respite
MARK NICHOLLS The Big C Centre is seeing about 300 visitors a month since it opened last May. But as Health Correspondent MARK NICHOLLS discovered, it wants to reach out to offer its facilities to even more cancer sufferers and their carers.
It is a place cancer sufferer Mary Cooper described as like walking into her front room in the weeks before she died at the age of 47.
The mother-of-two, who had ovarian cancer, felt The Big C Centre was homely, comfortable and relaxing and a retreat from the clinical environment of the nearby Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital where she was receiving treatment.
The circular building, funded by the Big C charity, sits on the roundabout close to the N&N and has seen more than 2,300 people since it opened in May 2006. But those operating the centre feel it can cater for so many more people with cancer, their families and their careers.
And they are appealing for more people to make use of a facility that was paid for by the people of Norfolk and North Suffolk.
Mary's husband Nigel, who lives at Buxton near Coltishall, said: "There are people who do not know that this place exists, but it is important that they become aware of it so they can share in the warmth and comfort Mary received when she was here. That was as important as getting the treatment."
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The centre is furnished in warm welcoming colours. It has sofas and comfortable areas to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, have a private chat or seek advice.
Mr Cooper said: "When Mary was an in-patient at the hospital, because she was too unwell to go home at times, we would come over here to get away from the hospital environment. Mary always felt like coming to the centre was like going into a front room, it had a homely feeling, it was somewhere to relax. She just felt at peace here.
"We often needed to get away from the hospital building to somewhere we could sit privately and feel comfortable and where it felt there was some normality to life."
The couple, with their two sons Kelvin, 27, and Brendan, 23, would make use of the library facilities at the centre, which also has an extensive information centre, contacts for support groups and internet access.
"I borrowed cookery books from the library as I had to do most of the cooking, but there was also information on special dietary needs ," explained Mr Cooper.
He has returned to the centre on a number of occasions since Mary's death in November.
Donations collected in lieu of flowers at Mary's funeral raised £1,183.87 and he is planning further fund-raising activities.
"I have good memories here. This was a special place for Mary and the family," he added.
The centre is managed by Jill Chapman, deputy manager Liz Muniandy and facilitator Wendy Marchant, who looks after the information available.
Mrs Chapman said: "We see ourselves as homely, friendly and manageable, people do not have to come here for information, they can just call in."
The centre also has a kitchen, central seating area, a lounge, meeting room and private side rooms for counselling.
The Caron Keating Room will host complementary therapy sessions such as reflexology and massage in the next fortnight, with six free sessions for patients and their carers. The room is named after Gloria Hunniford's daughter who died of cancer and had an interest in complementary therapies. Mrs Hunniford was also a donor toward the funding of the Big C Centre.
There are also other sessions for financial advice, wig clinics for women who have lost their hair during treatment, "look good feel better sessions" about make-up and a relaxation group is about to start.
Mrs Chapman explained that some patients often have an early appointment and then have to return hours later on the same day. They can spend that time at the Big C centre rather than going home or waiting around in the hospital.
Other patients call in for advice, somewhere to have their lunch or a chat.
Mrs Chapman added: "We do not profess to have all the answers, but we usually know somebody who has." Big C fund-raiser Sharon Hulbert said: "The thing that we want to get across is to make people aware that the centre is here for them.
"A lot of people do use it, we are seeing about 300 people a month, but there are still people out there who are not aware of it, but it is there for anybody in Norfolk and North Suffolk to use.
"People often need help with coping with the stress of their own cancer or a family member, but we have a lot of information people can access.
"This is a drop-in centre, people do not have to make an appointment, it is here to use as they want. They can come in and sit down, have a cup of coffee, talk to other patients or members of staff or book in for specific sessions.
"The number of people coming in is what we estimated for the first year. But it is not that we are desperate to get people in, we are desperate that the people who need to use it know that it is here for them."
The centre is open from Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 4.30pm and late nights on the first Wednesday of every month until 7pm.
Big C has offices in Castle Meadow, Norwich. Call 01603 619900 or phone the Big C Centre near the N&N on 01603 286112 or visit www.thebigccancercentre.co.uk