Crossing the threshold is often the hardest part following a diagnosis but there’s something comforting about walking into Maggie’s at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh and knowing you’ll be scooped up by a volunteer and made to feel at ease.
It’s across the road from the oncology unit but unlike the clinical hospital buildings, Maggie’s has the look and feel of a cosy cottage. There’s a lively garden for Scotland’s odd sunny days and inside the walls are painted a friendly, vibrant yellow.
Maggie’s, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has plans to expand the Edinburgh centre, which was the first to be built based on designs by the charity’s namesake Maggie Jencks.
She had grand plans for the homely drop-in centre but sadly lost her battle with cancer a year before it opened in November 1996.
Over the past two decades, patients, friends and family have made good use of Maggie’s.
Clusters of chairs are spread around the centre and there are no expectations of those who stop by.
In one corner a man sits alone reading the newspaper while a couple of ladies chatter away over a cuppa and a strawberry tart at the kitchen table. How you use it is entirely up to you.
Andrew Anderson, centre head at Maggie’s Edinburgh, worked as an oncology nurse at the Western General before joining the charity full time 17 years ago.
His day is spent talking to patients and their families, leading sessions and overseeing the smooth running of the centre.
“Maggie’s is a safe, uplifting space where people can talk about how cancer is affecting them as a human being,” said Mr Anderson.
“A lot of people will come in and say things they have never said to anyone in the world before and that will either be a useful release in itself or it will help re-frame how they think about themselves.”
Talking about the medical facts is the easy part, he explained. It’s about being able to relate to people and to understand what’s most important to them that day, and oddly enough it’s not always their health.
“There was a man we supported a number of years ago with a prostate cancer diagnosis,” Mr Anderson said.
“He was going to be going into hospital for six weeks and his biggest concern was what would happen to his dog.
“We spent 45 minutes having a chat about his dog, sourcing funds and finding a kennel he trusted to house his dog for that six weeks.”
Some Maggie’s users visit between appointments to escape the hospital waiting room. There are no uniforms and no name badges so at first glance it’s a challenge even to know who are the staff and volunteers and who are the patients and relatives.
Sessions on health and wellbeing run throughout the week with a men’s group on Mondays. For whatever reason men seem to find it harder to acknowledge that Maggie’s is there to help.
The hour’s stress and relaxation class on a Thursday nearly sends everyone to sleep which, given the tangle of thoughts patients are processing on a daily basis, is probably no bad thing.
Andrew Brown, a vet at Edinburgh University, was diagnosed with malignant paraganglioma just before Christmas in 2014 at the age of 36.
A husband and father to two young children, Mr Brown struggled to come to terms with his diagnosis and radiation treatment has meant long stints away from his family.
The NHS does a terrific job of treating patients but Maggie’s fills the gap where there is a need for a more holistic approach.
“I finished my radiation and it was like I was just left. I had nobody to call and what I have is really, really rare,” Mr Brown explained.
“They see very few cases in Scotland each year - it’s a slow-growing tumour which is totally incurable.
“I wasn’t coming in anywhere regularly and I was still feeling quite isolated. Everything is very slow with what I’ve got.
“Knowing my career had just stopped was difficult. I had put everything into it for the best part of 20 years. Everything about the future just changes.
“I couldn’t do anything or lift anything, I couldn’t even mow the law. All the things that make you who you are had gone and I really struggled with that.”
Mr Brown made the decision to try the men’s group at Maggie’s, recognising it as a place to share his frustrations with others in similar situations.
“It was really just good to talk about the concerns I had,” he said. “I found that everyone in the room had really similar things. When you get a diagnosis like that you automatically get that bond with someone.
“Talking to people at Maggie’s really, really helped. The situation puts tremendous pressure on your family.
“You always want to be the best father and the best husband you can be but it’s really hard sometimes.”
It was Andrew Slorance’s wife who initially wanted to engage with Maggie’s following his diagnosis in October 2015, aged 45.
The head of resilience response and communications at the Scottish Government has blogged online about his experience since he was diagnosed with incurable mantle cell lymphoma last year.
His visits to Maggie’s are often family affairs.
“I was aware of Maggie’s because, like most people my age, we have had family and friends or colleagues who have experienced cancer and have gone through the process,” said Mr Slorance.
“I have three young kids who are nine, six and five and two older children and we were trying to work out how to deal with them.
“I’m a bit of a reluctant participant in things so my wife made the first move. We then brought the kids in and sat down with Andy [centre head Andrew Anderson] and the team.
“It’s really relaxed and informal. Andy engaged really well at their level. We had to be as realistic as possible without trying to scare them.”
Throughout the year Maggie’s Centres run kids’ days which are a chance for children to do ask questions, meet the nurses and enjoy arts and crafts activities.
“They are trying to demystify things for them,” said Mr Slorance. “They created worry boxes so that if they had issues they were worried about they could put them in there.
“That was massively helpful because the hospital doesn’t usually encourage children to go into the wards.
“I had issues with the psychological impact about having an incurable cancer but going into remission. It was hard to get into that position of not thinking about it every day.
“I can understand why people feel there’s a bit of a barrier before they come to Maggie’s but I would say just do it.”