In 1988, Maggie Keswick Jencks was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47. She underwent a mastectomy and, in her own words, “put cancer behind me.”
But it returned in 1993 and again two years later. On July 8, 1995, Maggie died, leaving her husband Charles and two teenage children, John and Lily.
A year before she died, Maggie wrote A View From The Front Line about her experience with cancer, saying, “It’s about not losing the zest for life in the fear of dying.”
We’ve all received, in one form or another, news of a cancer diagnosis: whether it’s our own or someone we love. We have all, even for a short time, lost the joy of living in the fear of someone dying.
We’ve all endured the terrifying feeling of groping powerlessly in the dark for a comforting hand to guide us.
Laura, now Dame Laura and winner of the Pride of Scotland’s Outstanding Contribution Award (which surprised her!), continues to serve as Maggie’s brilliant CEO
As Maggie put it, “I’m down here in the war zone trying to figure out my map.”
She devoted the rest of her life to helping others figure out their map. She did this by working with her young oncology nurse, Laura Lee, to set up a center for people whose lives were affected by cancer.
Laura, now Dame Laura and winner of the Pride of Scotland’s Outstanding Contribution Award (which surprised her!), continues to serve as Maggie’s brilliant CEO.
When Maggie died, the blueprint of her center was on her bed. A year later, thanks to Laura’s determination, the first Maggie’s Center was built in Edinburgh.
True to her vision, it stood next to the hospital and was supposed to be a sanctuary for anyone living with the disease.
Staffed by cancer care experts, benefit counselors, psychologists and nutritionists, it was a place to have a cup of tea, do some quiet reflection, chat with a professional, take part in a relaxation class, or to sit with people who instinctively understood you without needing long explanations (three in five people find the mental challenges of living with cancer more difficult than the physical ones).
Each person would be supported and encouraged to create the ‘map’ that would lead to the best way for him or her to cope with cancer.
I first visited a Maggie’s center in Edinburgh in June 2008 and being new to Maggie’s story I felt a slight trepidation as we approached the hospital grounds.
So far, as Maggie’s president, I’ve visited 15 of the centers in this country (and I plan to visit them all!). I always like to ask the people I meet in these extraordinary centers to describe to me what Maggie Keswick Jencks’ remarkable 25-year legacy means to them
Would it be a gloomy, gloomy, clinical kind of place? Not at all. It was an incredibly uplifting experience in a beautiful building filled with light, laughter and thoughtful touches: comfy sofas, sliding doors (no intimidating locked doors with bossy announcements here!) and well-stocked bookshelves. The kitchen table is in the center. I sat down with an inspiring group of people, who shared with honesty, humor and a few tears what a difference this sanctuary had made to them and their families.
I experienced this myself a few years later, when a good friend was diagnosed with cancer. She called me, in a mild state of shock. I spoke to her about Maggie’s and luckily we discovered there was a center near her house.
Her visits there have been immensely helpful and now that she is cancer free, she attributes much of her healing to the comfort, reassurance and guidance she received from the center.
Twenty-five years after the opening of the first center, 24 have been built in this country and three abroad. In the UK they were set up at the invitation of NHS Trusts, each with a unique design: a Scottish croft in Dundee, a tree house in Oxford, a ‘cwtch’ (meaning both a hug and a cubicle) in Cardiff.
So far, as Maggie’s president, I’ve visited 15 of the centers in this country (and I plan to visit them all!).
I am always happy to ask the people I meet in these extraordinary centers to describe to me what Maggie Keswick Jencks’ remarkable 25-year legacy means to them.
‘It feels like home’, ‘I can talk about anything’ and ‘It gives me the confidence and the tools to face cancer’. As one person said, ‘I never visit without silently thanking Maggie for the new life this center has given me.’
Like everyone else, I’ve watched close family and friends battle cancer. Sadly, some are gone now, but others came out the other side.
I wish there was a Maggie’s center available to all of them – and indeed, I wish there was a center available for all those who are now in the precarious position of waiting for their cancer treatment.
It is estimated that nearly a million women missed their mammograms during the pandemic. I salute every member of NHS staff who is working so hard in the wake of the lockdown to support people with cancer. Now Maggie’s work is more vital than ever.
Thanks to the entire Maggie’s family for 25 years of outstanding service to people living with cancer, and let’s hope and pray that we will have a Maggie’s Center in every major city in this country for the next quarter of a century.