Maggie’s Oases of Calm

Hannah Stone

Maggie’s cancer care centre in Dundee feels like a home. It is built, like all Maggie’s centres, around a big wooden kitchen table. As Lesley Howells, the centre’s head, explains, “It all happens around the kitchen table. People can come in and just be, they don’t have to be taking part in something, they can just sit.”

The charity was founded in 1996 by Maggie Keswick-Jencks, who died of cancer a year before the first centre was built. As a landscape designer and architect, she knew how deeply a person’s state of mind was affected by their environment. 

After seven years of treatment for her illness, spending hours in windowless waiting rooms with fluorescent overhead lighting, and chairs lined up in a row against the wall, she decided that what cancer patients needed in addition to their medical treatment was a separate, calm and pleasant place where they could get emotional support and information on living with the illness.

There are now ten Maggie’s centres around the country. They provide services that cannot be squeezed from the NHS’s limited resources, or simply wouldn’t fit into a hospital environment: drop-in sessions with a psychotherapist, advice on claiming benefits for people too ill to work and a library of books about cancer. There are classes on relaxation and meditation and even a course on make-up for those who have lost their hair, and perhaps their confidence, through chemotherapy. The staff are all cancer-care professionals who can talk through the treatment options and help patients understand what they have been told by their doctors. Most importantly, the centres break the isolation that a cancer diagnosis can bring, providing a community of people going through the same experience.

When the charity was established it had only two employees, who ran a centre in Edinburgh, next to the hospital where Maggie was treated throughout her illness. It has expanded rapidly since then, with around 100 employees across the country. But Laura Lee, the chief operating officer, explained that each centre was very much rooted in its local area, with a staff of about five people. “By our very nature, each of our centres is small, serving the community around them, so although we’ve grown, we’ve kept smallness — that’s part of our philosophy.”

The Dundee centre is a building that you don’t want to leave, with high ceilings, comfy sofas and a wooden spiral staircase leading up to a little circular room, heated by a stove, with a view over trees to where the River Tay meets the sea. It was designed by Frank Gehry, a friend of Maggie and her husband, Charles Jencks — the noted architect and architectural historian — and has a dramatic folded-metal roof and curved white walls. It has recently opened a new garden, designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd, another friend. 

All this cutting-edge design is almost accidental because the couple happened to know leading architects who were prepared to contribute their time. Ms Lee thinks the distinctive architecture helps to draw in people who might be reluctant to ask for help. “Our centre in Fife looks like a stealth bomber, and so men can say, ‘I’m just coming in to work out how this building stays up,’ and then by the time the kettle’s boiled they’re talking about how they feel.”

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