SIX years ago life was very different for Karen Laing.
She was living in Aberdeen, working as an artist and a horticulturist with the Beechgrove Garden, and had just been told a worrying lump in her breast was a benign cyst. When her sons had flown the nest she moved south to begin a Masters in landscape architecture at Edinburgh College of Art.
By June 2011 she had just graduated when a call from her younger sister in Essex changed her life completely.
“She called to tell me she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Karen. “It was the summer, I’d finished my course, and I had noticed another lump which I thought was also a cyst and so I wasn’t worrying about it. But after her call I thought it would be wise to go to the doctor and get it checked out.
“He was relaxed about it but sent me for a mammogram given my sister’s diagnosis. The results came back and the brilliant radiologist who saw me wanted to check them against the previous mammogram I’d had done in Aberdeen. She noticed a small discrepancy and asked me to come in for a biopsy.
“It was all very relaxed, I never worried in the slightest. But when I went back to the Western General for the results, fully expecting the all-clear, I suddenly had a different consultant and he was telling me I had breast cancer. I had real difficulty taking it in.”
So confident had Karen been of being sent home with a receipt of good health, that she’d booked tickets for a Festival show that day. “I said to him, I’m going to a show, I can’t stay for tests. I was in total denial.”
From that moment, Karen says, the doctors had to “play battleships” with her breasts while they tried to accurately pinpoint where the cancer cells were. “They were so tiny they couldn’t be seen, so I was in the mammogram machine for hours and had six weeks of MRI and CT scans while they worked out what they were going to do.
“It turned out to be exactly the same cancer as my sister – lobular cancer – and in exactly the same place. By this point she was six weeks down the line and had had a lumpectomy, but was having to go back for more surgery and I was facing weeks of tests.
“At the same time I was looking for definitive answers, but of course they can’t give you them. I had a lumpectomy in both breasts, which was hugely invasive, even if it wasn’t a full mastectomy.
“But at this point I was still very well, fit and healthy. I didn’t have any symptoms, not even from the Tamoxifen I was on at that point. Radiotherapy was planned, but when I went back after the surgery I was told that although the operation had been successful the margin of clearance was too small, so chemotherapy was advised. That was frightening, when it began to overwhelm me. A low point.”
It was also the point that Karen finally stepped over the threshold of the Maggie’s Centre, the place which offers emotional and practical support and information or even just an escape for cancer patients and their families. “The hospital cancer wards are so busy they’re like a production line, a humane one, but still a production line given the numbers,” she says. “The Maggie’s Centre is so different from that. It became my family, my support, because my real family was up in Aberdeen and I was going through three-week bouts of extreme nastiness.
“One of my sons moved in and that helped but Maggie’s is where I could let it all out. It was a very stressful time. My hair was falling out, I was having poison pumped into me, my breasts had changed through surgery and because I also wasn’t working having just graduated, it was a real financial struggle too.
“Maggie’s was the place I could go to talk about all of that. Not that it was easy. I first went to a writing course they hold because I thought that might be interesting, and that unlocked it all for me. From sharing my experiences I ended up in one-to-one counselling and that helped greatly. It made me feel enabled.
“I cannot praise the Maggie’s Centre highly enough – they really saved my life.”
Which is why Karen was delighted to speak of her experiences to 550 women at the third annual Ladies Love Lunch Maggie’s fundraising event at the Sheraton Grand earlier this year – it raised £59,203 which was handed over by the hotel’s general manager Tristan Nesbitt last month. It costs £2400 a day to run a Maggie’s Centre – there are now 16 of them nationally, though Edinburgh was the first – so the money raised that day will pay for 25 days’ running costs.
“Maggie’s meant that I could give that talk, that I could go up on stage and talk in front of all those people about what is a very personal subject. If I hadn’t gone to Maggie’s I would never had been able to, but it’s a place which is all about telling you what you can do rather than what you can’t, but in a quiet, subtle way. It gave me a confidence,” says Karen.
“There was a sadness when I got to the point when I didn’t need their help anymore, Maggie’s had become such an important part of my life but now I want to help them in whatever way I can.”
Karen is due for her second annual post-cancer check later this summer and so is her sister, as she also successfully came through her surgery. And while she still suffers from fatigue she says: “I am so much better, and getting better all the time.
“I’ve started my own landscape design business and I’m doing work again for Beechgrove, this time as a designer and will be filming with them on Colonsay next week which is great.
“I’ve also love my new short hairstyle which I would never have been brave enough to ask for. I used to hide behind my long hair, now I love it this way.”
Design of garden was major concern
IT was in the garden of the Edinburgh Maggie’s Centre that Karen was able to find some solace after her breast cancer diagnosis.
Designed by Emma Keswick, its purpose is to extend the feeling of the centre to the grounds outside and in the summer months it becomes an extension of the kitchen where people sit out and meet others or take a few quiet moments while looking at the water features and a sculpture by George Rickey.
The garden was a major concern of Maggie Keswick Jencks, the writer, landscape designer, painter and mother, whom the centre is named after. It was she, and her husband Charles Jencks, who founded the place with the help of her oncology nurse Laura Lee, after Maggie had been told her breast cancer had returned and spread to her bones, liver and brain.
When she was asked to write an article on cancer from a patient’s perspective, Maggie realised that people felt better when able to take an active role in their illness rather than being “victims”. She believed in allowing people to be informed about what was happening to them, that they needed help to reduce stress, psychological support and the chance to share their experiences with others in a relaxed
She drew up a blueprint and plans for a pioneering venture, in a stable block in the grounds of the Western General, which was transformed by architect Richard Murphy into the first Maggie’s Centre. Unfortunately she died the year before it opened.