In Safe Hands

Almost 700 people living with cancer in Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight have accessed our telephone and online services since the corona-virus pandemic forced us to close the doors of our four support centres on 20th March.


The centres, in Bournemouth, Chandler’s Ford, Isle of Wight and Waterside (Hythe), are at the heart of the support we provide to anyone living with cancer. Anyone can simply drop in, safe in the knowledge they will be given a warm welcome by our centre managers – Jane at Chandler’s Ford, Mike on the Isle of Wight, Steffi at Bournemouth and Wendy at Waterside.

Our centres are  the hubs that bring people together in a relaxed and non-clinical environment, aided by trained counsellors who can help you find a way through your unique experience of cancer, and befrienders who will simply sit and listen to you without judgement. They are a source of comfort.

One of our clients described our Bournemouth centre like, ‘a breath of fresh air where I felt I could breathe a huge sigh of relief and just be myself.’  Many who visit become lifelong friends, knowing you have come together with others who know exactly what you are going through.  The centres are also a hive of activity, hosting coffee mornings, complementary therapies, exercise classes and countless support groups. All of this happens because of the dedication of our centre managers.

Being forced to close our doors was upsetting for all of us, especially as we knew you would need us more than ever. So we quickly set up telephone helplines, moved some of our services online and developed useful information and resources so we could continue to provide the support you rely on. Mike, Steffi, Jane and Wendy’s dedication and flexibility were crucial to the success of this and they have been telling us how the past few weeks have been for them.


Wendy at Waterside says: “Jane is coordinating everything for Hampshire for the time being, but before that happened it was very important that I contacted our therapists and counsellors to ensure that counselling would continue and we had ways of staying in touch with our clients. We also gave several of our befrienders a Wessex Cancer Support email account, which means they can continue to support the majority of our clients. Anyone new who needs us can be passed to them or picked up from the closed Facebook page, which means everyone can still have a one-to-one conversation if they need it. I’m also a listening ear for the befrienders.”

The centres have never had to close before, and so adapting quickly to a new way of working was crucial, as Jane explains:“We knew this was going to be a particularly anxious time for anyone living with cancer and it was important to give everyone confidence that we would carry on providing as many of our services as we could.
Because the situation escalated so quickly we had very little time to make plans, so those last few days were very much about calling all of our clients to make sure they knew we were still there for them, asking them what they would find helpful and assuring them we would continue to check-in with them over the telephone. It was also important to spread that message of ongoing support more widely.
We made sure our local hospitals, networks and agencies had our helpline number so they could refer people to us, particularly anyone with a new diagnosis.  In terms of our counselling service, our trained counsellor, Clare, is supporting as many people as before, just over the telephone rather than face-to-face. We also found ways to move a lot of our support and resources online. We spoke to our contacts to see how they could run their therapies remotely, and Malcolm and Sonja were able to pre-record some Tai Chi and meditation sessions which have been made available online. We’re also running coffee and chat sessions via Zoom.”
‘We came into the centre for the last time and asked ourselves, ‘have we done everything we possibly can?’ She explains. ‘We felt sure that we had and we’ve continued to evolve ever since.’
Jane says it is also important that her team of befrienders feels supported during this time:
“Many of them have a personal relationship with cancer and they find volunteering at the centre rewarding, both in terms of helping others and for their own wellbeing. For them, that routine and interaction has been temporarily taken away, so it’s important that I keep those relationships going and talk to them about how they can still help.”
Mike, who runs our centre in Newport on the Isle of Wight, says the role of centre manager is much wider than you might imagine, particularly at this time of crisis:
“Coordinating the day-to-day running of the centre has always been extremely important”, he says, “but people living with cancer here face their own unique challenges because they have to travel to the mainland for treatment, so my role has always been really broad. This is a particularly worrying time if your treatment has been cancelled or you wonder how on earth you’re meant to protect yourself if you are still having treatment and have no immunity.”
“The pandemic has highlighted how important it’s been to build relationships with other agencies and service providers across the Island. It’s made us the hub of Isle of Wight cancer support. For example, national cancer charities have been asking us for advice and we’re in regular touch with the oncology teams to help them support their cancer patients. We’ve had a lot of praise from the mainland hospitals about the support we provide.”
You have to remember that for our clients, it can be extremely stressful, time consuming and expensive travelling for treatment, and we have to adapt and innovate every day. Can you imagine having to queue for your ferry ticket when you get to the Red Funnel terminal and show a stranger your referral letter?
Patients often need a number of treatments, so together with the Isle of Wight NHS Trust we’ve negotiated subsidised travel with Red Funnel. Also, in collaboration with Healthwatch IOW I’ve had it agreed to lift the restrictions which prevented patients travelling by car ferry from reclaiming a portion of their fare from the NHS-administered Cross Solent Travel Scheme. This is because currently car ferry is now the sole option available for travel to Southampton. Additionally, because most of our fundraising and events have been postponed or cancelled, I’ve been busy helping with funding applications so we can keep our services running during this pandemic and beyond.
The team here (and I must give a special shout-out to Lorraine, our Community Engagement Manager who is amazing!) has made the whole transition appear seamless to our clients and they know we’re absolutely here for them to give both practical advice and comfort until we can reopen.

Steffi had only been Bournemouth’s Centre Manager for two weeks before it closed its doors. As a qualified counsellor and someone who has had cancer herself, she understands her clients’ anxieties and why not being able to meet up with others is incredibly hard:
“This situation has really made me think about my own cancer experience and how different it was. I was lucky to have friends and family rally around me and that was such an important part of my recovery. Anyone living with a cancer diagnosis at the moment doesn’t have as much physical comfort, if any.

I’ve been in touch with a client in her 20s who’s having to completely isolate in her spare room, and is relying on her partner to leave food outside her door. On top of that she’s recently lost her elderly grandmother and can’t go to her funeral. That’s incredibly tough, and something so many people are having to live with at the moment.

We’ve been having coffee and chat catch-ups via Zoom three times a week and those are really valuable to our clients,” she says. “There’s a great deal of comfort in still being able to speak to others who understand what you’re going through, even if you can’t come to the centre.”

“Because I’m still quite new and getting to know my clients and how the centre runs, I’ve relied on my wonderful befrienders a lot”, Steffi continues. “We have regular Zoom meetings, and they’re checking in with clients via email to see how they are. We’ve managed to move a lot of our therapies online, too. For example we’re offering Reiki, Tai Chi and sound therapy and those have been really popular.

There’s never a spare minute at the centre, so I’m using this time to focus on my relationships with our clients, understanding their unique needs and how we can best help them. I’m also building relationships with our wider community, like cancer nurses and GP surgeries, so they can reassure people that we’re still here, if they need us.” These personal relationships are key.

The Future of Cancer Care

At the end of 2019 we launched a new strategy detailing how we will help the growing number of people living with cancer by shaping the future of local cancer care. It takes into account the unique needs of everyone living with cancer and provides a much more personalised approach to care. As part of this, we will strive to provide clear and accessible information for anyone living with a cancer diagnosis, including making more services available online.

Despite the enormous challenges we have faced, Jane feels the coronavirus pandemic has been a good pilot for this way of working and has enabled Wessex Cancer Support to start evolving its services to help more people than ever before.

However our services develop, one thing is for sure, the doors to our support centres will open and we will meet again. Until then, you can be assured that you are in safe hands for as long as you need us.