Healing spaces: How the right environment can transform your experience with cancer

Monday 06 May 2024

We spoke to our experts to find out how the purpose-built Maggie’s centres use space to support everyone with cancer and everyone who loves them, and how you can use the space provided by your nearest centre.

Sitting in a pleasant, but by no means expensive room, with thoughtful lighting, a view out to trees, birds and sky, and chairs and sofas arranged in various groupings could be an opportunity for patients to relax and talk, away from home cares.

There could be a tea and coffee machine (including herb teas) for while you’re waiting, and a small cancer library, as well as leaflets, for those who want to learn more about their disease.

These are the words of Maggie Keswick Jencks from her manifesto ‘A view from the front line’, written after her own cancer diagnosis experience.

If you have visited a Maggie’s centre before, the picture painted by these words may be familiar to you. Because Maggie’s manifesto became the blueprint for every building.

The concept: that the building itself and the space in which cancer support is provided can be as powerful as the support itself.

Space for opening up

Maggie’s idea stemmed from her own experience of being left to digest the news of her cancer diagnosis in a hospital corridor, since there was nowhere else for her and her husband to go.

Cancer Support Specialist Angela Daniel from  Manchester talks about how the centres are often used by people to process a cancer diagnosis, and how the open spaces in centres mean nothing is taboo to talk about.

“People are comforted by the gentle domesticity of our surroundings. It makes them feel comfortable, and then that will make them feel encouraged to open up.

“I remember I was once sat with a lady who was quite visibly upset at our kitchen table. I asked if she would like to go to one of our separate rooms, but she responded to say if that happened she would probably clam up. The familiar environment of the kettle boiling, stacking of the dishwasher and kitchen table helped her to feel normal and to open up.”

“The building is part of the team”

Lorrie Cameron, Clinical Psychologist and Centre Head at Maggie’s Lanarkshire, finds that centre visitors often use the space for having a quiet moment of reflection, as well as coming in to ask for support from the expert staff.

“Sometimes people just need to sit with the building. And that, just allowing things to settle, can have a similar impact as talking to someone.

“Sometimes you feel like you are almost intruding when you ask somebody ‘do you want to chat, did you come in to speak to someone?’, and they say ‘I just came to have a little sit. I’m with someone getting treatment just now and I just wanted to sit and look at the garden’.”

Space for taking a breath

The outside spaces and gardens that complement the centres also help people feel comfortable and far away from the sights and sounds of the hospital.

Lorrie continues: “One time I was seeing a lady for quite a complex psychology appointment, and we were sitting looking out to the garden. The glass window comes right down to the floor in the room that I was using.

“At the end of the session, I asked what had been helpful from that appointment, and she responded saying she could have sat and looked at the grass from the window all day. So for her, what was useful was just finding something settling about the environment.

“At Lanarkshire, before you even come through the door you can take a little pause and a breath in the courtyard to the sound of babbling water, the trees and the birdsong.”

The rooms and spaces in the centres themselves can also help hold people’s emotions and make them feel comfortable to talk about their feelings in group setting and activities.

Lorrie adds: “There were some huge emotions in our recent bereavement group, but it is like the room absorbs a lot of that emotion. You may have the wood burner on, you’ve got the comfy cushions, you’ve got the sofa and you can just let your body soften a little.

“And I can leave the visitors to have a coffee and a blether after the group, knowing they will be ok because it is like being in somebody’s safe, comforting living room.”

A space for friends and family

When Sarah's husband Mike was coming into hospital for appointments and treatment after his myeloma diagnosis, she said she felt like a ‘spare part’ until she visited Royal Marsden for the first time.

Sarah recalls: “As I walked in, I was greeted by a volunteer who made me a cup of tea, and we just talked. We had lots in common and I felt understood.

“It doesn't matter how supportive friends and family are – unless you've actually been through something like this, you can’t really get how it takes over your your life.

It was great to be near the hospital in case Mike needed me and feel like I had somewhere I could be.

For Sarah, the centre was also a safe, neutral space to tell her children some difficult news.

“On the day before Mike died, my mum and dad sat with him while I went and got the kids from their holiday camp. I knew that I had to tell them that they had to say goodbye.

“I really didn’t want to do that in the hospital. It’s an amazing place in some ways, but it’s not a nice place to be in and it’s scary for young children. Every time I pull up in that car park, my heart still sinks.

“Although the kids hadn’t been to at that point, they knew that I came here and that I felt safe here. So I reached out and asked if we could come here and I could speak to them here instead.

“We weren't in here for very long. I just wanted them to have the space if they needed it to talk to somebody. Just being here felt like I was protecting them a bit more. They just wanted to see Mike and I’m so thankful he was coherent enough to say goodbye.”

Here with you

If you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, can help.

Our cancer support specialists are here for whatever stage you're at, whatever it is that you're facing.

Find your nearest centre and talk to a cancer support specialist to find out more. You don't need an appointment –  just come in.

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