Help after those dreadful words: ‘You have cancer’

John Bryan  Chair Cavendish Cancer Care
John Bryan Chair Cavendish Cancer Care

HOW do you react when told that you or a loved one has cancer?

John Bryan oversees a Sheffield charity that helps 1,500 people a year throughout the region come to terms with the trauma of the diagnosis - and he can call on his own personal experience.

His wife, Alli, discovered that she had lung cancer in 2001.

That’s when they turned to Cavendish Cancer Care in Broomhall, which offers free emotional support and complementary therapies designed to relieve some of the stress, helping patients and their families to overcome feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness and depression.

“When you hear the dreadful words ‘You have cancer’, people go into psychological shock,” says John, who chairs the trustees of Cavendish, who are now in line for a much needed financial boost as a result of being chosen to benefit from this year’s Master Cutler’s Challenge.

“For most people it is the first time their life has been under threat in any way. A lot of people can’t get a handle on their situation for quite a while. What you try to do is find ways of putting them back on their feet so they have choices and feel like they are able to cope.”

In some cases, just having somebody to talk to can be extremely valuable.

But in addition to offering counsellors, Cavendish provides stress reduction techniques such as massage, reflexology, yoga, acupuncture, reiki and hypnotherapy.

The centre in Wilkinson Street is not about clinical services. “We try to be completely different to the NHS. We are trying to fill a gap.”

It’s accepted that places such as Weston Park Hospital and St Luke’s Hospice do a great job, as do the Macmillan nurses, says John.

But there can be all sorts of questions amid the emotional turmoil. What about my job? How will we cope financially? How do we tell the children?

There are no hard-and-fast answers. “It’s a case of giving people space and confidence rather than saying this is the best way. You can’t go through somebody’s journey for them, they have to do it for themselves.”

Alli’s diagnosis came out of the blue, when their daughters, Charlotte and Sammy, were nine and seven, respectively.

“We had a real up-and-down experience for 16 months before she died of a brain tumour in March 2003,” says John, who was leading the Bond Bryan architects’ practice in Sheffield at the time.

Until the lung cancer was found, Alli had enjoyed good health.

“Beyond a cigarette at parties, Alli never smoked. She was always pretty fit and healthy. There was a persistent cough and six months later the dreadful diagnosis. It was a huge shock. I can still remember being in that room and thinking my life is over, and it wasn’t me that had it.

“I knew of Cavendish through a friend, and somebody gave us a leaflet. We needed all the help we could get. It was brilliant from the moment the receptionist opened the door and said: ‘You’re John and Alli, aren’t you?’ There is this nurturing atmosphere.

“When you are reeling, the NHS is brilliant, giving you very expensive treatment very rapidly. But by it’s very nature it can’t look after your emotional needs.”

Cavendish even continued to help John’s family six years after Alli’s death, when one of the girls wanted to talk about her grief.

The Sheffield charity was set up almost 20 years ago by dentist David Simons, and John took over from Malcolm Reed, professor of surgery at Sheffield University, last November.

He heads an organisation that has ten full and part-time staff and can call on 30 to 40 therapists, much of the work being carried out in hospitals and hospices.

With each course of six sessions costing about £350, it needs £550,000 a year to continue its work, and the Master Cutler’s Challenge will provide a significant financial platform from which to consolidate and develop services.

Cancer changed John’s life. One of the repercussions was that, after 20 years, he sold his architectural business in 2007 to spend more time with his daughters as part of a reassessment of his own future, although he carried on working there until 2010.

John, aged 50, of Nether Edge, carries out occasional consultancy work, but much of his focus these days is on helping the charity that was there for his family.

And he wants to make sure it will continue to offer a crucial helping hand to hundreds more families across the region every year.