20th November 2017

Inside CLAN as a patient: Marsali Taylor’s own story

Nobody ever expects to become a cancer patient, in spite of statistics. The shock of knowing you’ve got a tumour isn’t helped by being told that your treatment means a stay in Aberdeen, away from your family and friends just when you need their support most. Luckily, for us Isles people, and folk from the northern coast of Scotland, there’s CLAN Cancer Support.

 CLAN was set up in 1983 to give patients and their families in north-east Scotland support through their treatment. The group’s original centre was in Justice Mill Lane. It moved to the former Rosemount Church in 1996, and its first residential building, CLAN Haven, was opened in 2002, in the church hall.

The new CLAN centre in Westburn Road only opened in November, after an enormous fundraising campaign. It’s a beautiful modern building split into two: CLAN Haven, the residential end, and CLAN House, the centre open to all affected by cancer.

The Haven itself is on two floors. As you come in, there’s the housekeeper’s room – there are several housekeepers, all lovely, and one a fellow-sailor, though in the warmer waters of the Med. At night, a security guard sits at a table by the door. The decor echoes the CLAN colours of cream, blue and purple, which gives a restful atmosphere, and carpeting everywhere adds to the hushed feel – yet it’s not the kind of quiet you’re scared of speaking in, just very peaceful.

The Haven has 27 bedrooms, mostly a mix of twins and singles; two are adapted for disabled access, and there are two family rooms. They’re not just for patients: husbands, wives, children can also stay here, either with their cancer-affected family member, or on their own while the patient is having time in hospital.

The rooms are like a modern hotel, a Travel Lodge, say: a clean, bright interior, with cream walls, divan beds with dark purple headboards, pinky-beige carpet and light wood furniture, and en suite facilities. A long table/shelf runs along one wall, and there is plenty of storage space: a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and two beside-bed chests. There isn’t wi-fi access in the rooms, but there’s a socket for a network cable, and plenty of plugs. There’s a phone, for internal and in-coming calls, and a TV with a dozen channels. There’s even a kettle and little dishes of teabags, coffee sachets and those milk straws they give you on Flybe. The big difference from a Travel Lodge is the space – I’m in a twin room, and could dance a Shetland reel quite easily (and given the friendly atmosphere, it may come to that yet!) 

It’s the individual touches that make the difference. The stunning quilts on the beds were a gift from the local Seattle Quilt Company, the Buckie Quilters Group and some individual quilters. The radiator has its own thermostat, and I really appreciated this on days I wasn’t feeling too great, being able to boost the heat and snuggle down in bed till I felt better. The arm-chair’s the comfiest I’ve ever sat in – that’s really important, because radiotherapy can make you gradually too tired to do much, but you don’t want to lie in bed all the time. I could definitely get used to the cheery lasses who clean and hoover every day!

The sound-proofing is impressive. Even with the toilets and showers designed to be backing on to the corridor, you’d expect to hear some noise from next door, if only distant TV sounds, but so far all I’ve heard has been a baby laughing – and who could possibly object to that?

The centre is only five minutes walk from the Rosemount area, which is a very nice little shopping street. As well as a small Co-op, and a Sainsbury’s which is open from 7am until 11pm, there’s a pharmacist, a florist, a hairdresser’s, a wool store and several other shops, a rather good Indian take-away and an equally good, tiny, family-run pasta restaurant and delicatessen. Oh, and several rather good charity shops, including CLAN’s own, where I netted two very pretty shawls to fling over my purple bed-heads – it’s not quite my colour.

At breakfast time, the housekeeper and a volunteer are active in the kitchen, offering cereal, tea, coffee, and brown or white toast. They’re well used to the side-effects of chemotherapy, and one of these is increased sensitivity to cold, so the orange juice and milk are thoughtfully removed from the fridge beforehand. After you’ve finished, you rinse your dishes off and put them in the dishwasher – if the staff don’t get to them first, and shoo you away!

Some radiotherapy patients who’ve been booked in by the NHS have meals provided for them.  Two main meals a day are delivered from the hospital. The fridge gets stacked with little black plastic trays, marked with your names, and all ready for the micro-wave (3 minutes). A list comes round on Friday for next week’s meals, and you have to tick your choices. It doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten what you chose; it’s written on the tray. There’s a bit of swapping, too, if someone has been out for lunch, and has an extra tray, or doesn’t feel like what they chose.

When home feels so far away, it’s good to be surrounded by Orkney and Shetland voices. There’s a chorus of cheery ‘hellos’ as each person comes in of a morning, and everyone sits together. It’s rarely medical talk, because we’d all rather think about what’s going on at home, our families, our cats and other topics of far more interest. There’s a lot of laughing, and it’s good to have the support and advice of people who’ve had this treatment before you.

One of the drivers comes in at breakfast time, to see who needs taken up to the hospital. The centre has its own minibus, but it’s a nice walk up to the hospital if the day is fine, and you’re feeling up to it: diagonally across Westburn Park, up a street, along a street, and there you are, right at Radiotherapy. It takes less than fifteen minutes, and the park has an artificial burn through it, so you get the pleasant  chuckle of running water. Walking there is uphill, walking back a nice downhill stroll, but you can get a lift back too, if you don’t mind waiting for Bill, Mike or Alan to gather up a handful of residents and caa them back to the minibus.

In the evening, folk gather in the lounge. It’s a chatting place, rather than for TV watching. It has a lovely children’s corner, and there’s an electric keyboard, for sing-songs, and a computer with internet access.

Our key-fob electronic keys also let us in to the Centre next door, and I’m still finding my way around that. You come to the office and reception first, then there’s a huge lounge, with a kitchen for making tea and coffee. There’s a well-stocked library and three bright, toy-filled rooms for children. Upstairs, there are rooms for the activities: Art, Craft, Yoga, Relaxation. The organisers have ideas for more – this building has huge potential for expanding their services – but they want to make sure any new initiatives are sustainable. The two activity rooms can join together to make one big enough for 100 people. The Fund-raising team have their own office; there’s also a Trust Funding officer, because there’s a lot of money out there, if you know how and where to apply for it.

The therapists have their own suite. CLAN offers a range of complementary therapies, and because they can be quite powerful, you’re not allowed more than one a week. Aromatherapy, Aqua Detox, Healing, Homeopathy, Reflexology, Reiki, Shiatsu and Visualisation are all on offer, and they’re well booked up, for four weeks ahead. However cancellations are quite common, so I managed to book three sessions of Shiatsu – I found this wonderful, like a knobbly massage which filled me with energy afterwards, and a session of Aqua Detox. The idea of that is to draw toxins out of the body through the pores of your feet, using a low electrical pulse, and I was warned by the lass in reception that I’d be horrified by the colour of the water after my first session. I was! The water began peat-brown, but by the time my feet had done half an hour in the basin, it was deep brown, and nastily scummy. I hope that was the electricity …

All the treatments are open to anyone affected by cancer, not just the Haven residents. The sessions are free, but donations are requested.

Joan, the Centre’s librarian and information officer, told me a bit more about the workers you see everywhere in the centre.

‘There are a huge number of people employed throughout CLAN. There are 35-40 staff in total, full-time and part-time, and 40 sessional workers – the therapists, counsellors, and our local co-ordinators.’

 There are also over 200 volunteers involved with CLAN, and the Centre has 40 trained support volunteers, overseen by a Volunteers Co-ordinator. ‘She invests time in matching skills to needs,’ Joan said.

CLAN is a registered charity, and is funded almost entirely through donations.

‘Our annual running cost is £1.4 million. That’s not just the centre, it’s all of CLAN’s activities throughout the north-east of Scotland and the islands. For example, in Shetland, we have a support group on the first Tuesday of every month at Freefield, from 7pm. Janette Budge is the support group facilitator. There’s a drop-in centre at Islesburgh on Thursday and Saturday from 11 to 1, and we also offer some therapies – reflexology, Reiki and visualisation. At the moment these are through home visits, but we’re about to find premises in Shetland. This is partly in recognition of the tremendous fundraising effort made by the Shetland community, and partly because we want to continue the support we offer here. We’re looking to appoint a local co-ordinator for Shetland, so that the drop-in service can be open more days.’

‘The children and family service here also go to Orkney and Shetland. One of the lovely things about this new centre is our family facilities – the children’s rooms are just next door, and you hear them playing. Although the atmosphere here is quiet, there’s no sense that they’re not allowed to make a noise – the rooms are so obviously for having fun, and that helps relax the parents too.’

‘We were worried that having the door between the Haven and the Centre would make the Haven residents stay in their own side, but I think they’re using the centre more – they come through to enjoy the conservatory. People often comment on the light and the space.’

We talk about getting photographs for this article. Joan has a number on her computer, but they’re all taken before the Centre opened, showing the beauty of the building, but not capturing the atmosphere. Behind me, in the big lounge, nearly every cluster of couch and chairs has people in it, chatting, laughing. A toddler’s running between his parents and the play room. A therapist takes her next client along the corridor; one of the fund raisers is showing a group around and brings them into the library. They’re obviously impressed with everything they see.

‘It’s a wonderful building,’ Joan said, ‘but it’s the people and the positive atmosphere they create that make it such a special place.’

One of my visitors echoed that. My sister, another Joan, came to visit me, and made a comment that touched me:  ‘I’m not frightened of cancer now.’  I asked her to explain, and this is what she said.

‘Before I visited you at Clan, like most people not closely touched by cancer, I held an unconcious and irrational fear of it. Sitting at the breakfast table there, I realised that although I was with a group of people who were ill – some very ill – this was not what defined them, they were just ordinary people chatting about what they were going to do at the week-end and passing each other the teapot and the butter. They were quietly getting on with their lives whilst giving each other support, casually in conversation but mostly by just being there on the same journey. In that moment I knew I was no longer frightened of cancer.’

I can’t speak highly enough of the people at CLAN – their kindness, their knowledge, their friendliness, their support. All the money Shetlanders have raised is being very well spent in providing this immensely valuable facility.