Enabling cancer patients to live their lives to the fullest in Sheffield

"We're a bit like the AA or the RAC," says Chris Farrell, settling on a good analogy to describe how the Sheffield charity Cavendish Cancer Care approaches its work.

Wednesday, 31st January 2018, 5:26 pm
Updated Wednesday, 7th February 2018, 11:43 am
Chris Farrell, chief executive of Cavendish Cancer Care, in one of the new therapy rooms. Picture: Chris Etchells
Chris Farrell, chief executive of Cavendish Cancer Care, in one of the new therapy rooms. Picture: Chris Etchells

"You don't join because you want to break down - you join because if you do, it's an absolute nightmare and you need to know who to phone to get the best possible help. That's how I see our role, making sure anyone in the city who's affected by cancer knows they can come to us - and our job is getting them back on their feet and enabling them to live their lives to the fullest."

Chris, the charity's chief executive, has just overseen arguably the biggest project in the charity's 27-year history. The organisation has moved from its base on Wilkinson Street, Broomhall, to plush, freshly-renovated premises, after raising nearly £200,000 through an appeal backed by Sheffield Telegraph readers.

Chris Farrell, chief executive of Cavendish Cancer Care, inside the charity's new centre in Broomhall. Picture: Chris Etchells

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Cavendish mainly provides counselling and other treatments, such as massage and hypnotherapy, for cancer patients and their families - a philosophy that recognises the far-reaching impact of a diagnosis. The new centre has six versatile therapy rooms to support the charity's key activities, as well as a light and airy reception, offices and a spacious kitchen kitted out for group sessions.

The refurbished building is just a few yards away from Cavendish's former home, but the differences are worlds apart, says Chris. On his first day in charge three-and-a-half years ago, he gathered staff, volunteers and service users together and asked them - light-heartedly, but with serious intent - what they would lobby for if they were 'stuck in a lift with Richard Branson'.

"Every person said 'The physical environment has to be addressed'. Because while the centre was fantastic, with a sense of safety and security, it was tired. We'd been in there since 1997; it needed a new roof and electrics, but also it wasn't really accessible. If you were a wheelchair user, the best we could do is put down some temporary ramps and have the fundraising team manhandle you into the building."

Parking was limited and the old place could be noisy as it lay directly beside Upper Hanover Street on the inner ring road. "We'd be doing a relaxation class and you'd have rush hour traffic outside," Chris says.

Chris Farrell with Cavendish Cancer Care staff. Picture: Chris Etchells

The accessibility dilemma has been solved - the new, bigger car park leads directly to a glazed lobby with a wheelchair lift - and the building will be known as the Tim Pryor Centre. The name honours the charity's chair of trustees, a retired commercial banker who has donated to Cavendish in the past and now has cancer himself.

"We've been overwhelmed by the generosity of the community," says Chris. Health insurer Westfield Health gave £55,000 and one man sold his holiday home, donating £10,000 from the proceeds to the capital appeal.

The charity sees about 1,600 people annually - 800 at the centre, and the same again at city hospitals - and 2017 was the organisation's busiest period yet. The yearly figure includes about 60 children; one of the larger new therapy rooms has a cupboard filled with toys and paints, to help create a less formal atmosphere.

Cavendish raises 95 per cent of its running costs independently. The NHS provides some money, but it would only be enough to keep the centre open for two weeks. The Church Burgesses Trust agreed to renovate the new building, leaving £193,000 to find for decorating, equipment and other improvements.

Chris Farrell with Cavendish Cancer Care staff outside the new centre on Wilkinson Street, Broomhall. Picture: Chris Etchells

"It's been hard work keeping everything going," says Chris.

The charity looked across the city for potential new sites, but decided to stay in the middle of Sheffield close to the Weston Park cancer hospital. "Having spent three months driving around we ended up going three doors down. Quite often we'll see someone in hospital, and then we'll see their family at the centre, so it's not two separate services."

Around 11 staff work for the charity, along with a team of self-employed therapists who see anyone affected by cancer, for any reason. This includes those recently diagnosed, patients undergoing or recovering from treatment, the terminally ill and the growing number of individuals 'living with and beyond cancer'. People worried about inheriting the disease are welcome.

"I saw a woman whose mum and auntie both passed away from breast cancer when they were 41," Chris says. "She was turning 40 and thinking 'Am I next?'"

Chris Farrell, chief executive of Cavendish Cancer Care, inside the charity's new centre in Broomhall. Picture: Chris Etchells

Commonly patients are given a good prognosis, and are likely to recover, but still feel depressed and unable to 'get back to their old life', while very often people are consumed by the thought of leaving their family to cope without them. A small, quiet therapy room has been set aside in the new building as the 'snug', for visitors who feel particularly emotional.

"The range of things people present with is really vast. It can be very practical, for example someone saying their treatment is making them feel really nauseous, or emotional - they might not be able to sleep at night through worrying about what's coming next."

But Chris adds: "For almost everyone we see there is something we can do to make their life better."

A survey found almost all of the centre's visitors would be highly likely to recommend Cavendish to others facing cancer. "We know we play an essential role in helping local families."

The charity meets a clear need, Chris says. He cites research by Macmillan Cancer Support that found almost half of patients struggled most with the 'psychological impact' of their illness.

"We know there are huge gaps in mental health provision and the impact of that can cost as much as a decade in terms of life expectancy. It's something the NHS isn't necessarily always best set up to support, whereas at the centre we will see people within five days of contacting us. We can give them support at the point they recognise they need it, rather than being put on a waiting list by the doctor where it could be weeks or months."

Chris Farrell with Cavendish Cancer Care staff. Picture: Chris Etchells

Macmillan has suggested that, by 2020, almost half of the British population will develop cancer in their lifetime, but more are expected to survive.

"In many ways cancer is a good news story thanks to more developments in treatment, more awareness, prevention and early detection. If you go back 20 years the life expectancy was one year, now it's seven. That's hugely positive. The reality of that is more people living with the fear of cancer and the consequences of treatment than ever before.

"One of the key things we do is support people to take back control. We don't want people coming to see us for a long period of time if they can thrive and do well independently. What's really important is that anyone who might benefit from our support knows how to get it and comes to us."

Visit www.cavcare.org.uk for details.

Chris Farrell with Cavendish Cancer Care staff outside the new centre on Wilkinson Street, Broomhall. Picture: Chris Etchells