Cancer Support Centres: Safe havens for people living with cancer

‘Often people with cancer put on a brave face and say they are fine but they’re not’

Being diagnosed with cancer can be the biggest shock of your life and coping with treatment and recovery is often a lonely journey – even if you are surrounded by family and friends.

For these reasons, cancer support centres often become a safe place to share your worries and fears, while meeting other people going through similar situations.

The Hope Cancer Support Centre in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, is one such place. Situated in a town house at on Upper Weafer St, the centre was opened in 2007. It is a warm, welcoming and comfortable place that offers people with cancer and their care givers free counselling, facilitated group sessions and various therapies on week days from 9am-4pm. About 250 people avail of its services each year.

"Picking up the phone or walking in the door is often the hardest step for people," says Sharon Groarke, support nurse at the Hope Cancer Support Centre. "People are often taken aback that it's not a clinical setting. What we provide here is very simple – it's a calm, safe space to talk about your worries and feelings about your diagnosis or treatment. Often people with cancer put on a brave face and say they are fine but they're not."


There is often the expectation from family that the person will be back to normal after treatment, but it's not like that

Before they join any group sessions or go for counselling or therapies, clients at the centre first meet with one of the three cancer support nurses. “They have a cup of tea and share their story. Some people come just after they have got news of their cancer diagnosis, others come when they are going through their treatment or immediately afterwards and then, others come further down the line when they “face a brick wall” and realise that they haven’t dealt with it,” says Groarke.

The Hope Cancer Support Centre operates on a self-referral basis and following assessment with the support nurse, people come and go for therapies and drop-in sessions as they choose.

People realise that life doesn’t go back to normal after cancer but instead that they have to find a “new normal”, according to Groarke. “There is often the expectation from family that the person will be back to normal after the treatment is finished, but it’s not like that.”

Mary Murphy was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2013 and had treatment from December 2013 until June 2014. "Half way through my treatment, someone mentioned the Hope Cancer Support Centre to me but it still took me a while to come to the door," she explains. Now, looking back, she feels hugely grateful for the support she received. "When I came here, it was like they knew me all their lives. I made so many friends here and had counselling and relaxation sessions, reflexology and massage," she tells The Irish Times as we sit in the comfortable sitting room at the front of the centre.

However, as some people find, it was when her treatment finished that Murphy relied on the centre most of all. “When you are in treatment, you have a lot of support from family and oncology nurses who give you therapy as well as chemo. My grown-up children were always there for me but sometimes, you don’t want to offload on them. There is a feeling of isolation after treatment and this place was my saving grace during that time.” Murphy lost her mother to lung cancer and her brother died of bowel cancer while she was receiving her own cancer treatment.

As well as her therapy sessions, Mary Murphy attended the monthly women’s only support groups at the Hope Cancer Support Centre. “We sat around and talked but you didn’t have to talk if you didn’t want to. Almost all of us cried at some stage.”

She also joined the walking group. "I hadn't walked for so long because I felt I wasn't able to walk. But, in the walking group, I got stronger week by week and even got a little bit competitive," she says with a smile. The cancer support nurses provide regular assessments and encouragement for the walking group, which is part of the Irish Cancer Society Strides for Life 15-week structured "get fit after cancer" programme.

Murphy says that she is a different person now following her experience of cancer. “It does change you. I’ve a better perspective on how to live my life. You can’t change the past but you can enjoy your life now as best you can,” she says.

For me, it's good to have a good cry and look for support

On my visit to the centre, a group of caregivers agree to me sitting in on their session with cancer support nurse, Bernie Kirwan. Margaret Jordan comes to this group for support as her husband, Matthew, is receiving treatment for chronic leukaemia. Her son, Stephen, died of acute leukaemia in November 2013. "I get great strength from coming here. Stephen's death was a huge loss to us. It's something you never get over but you learn to live around it," she says.

Mary Arrigan also comes to the caregivers group to help her support her husband who has acute myeloid leukaemia. "I came to my first meeting in December 2016. We all told our stories and cried. People put their arms around each other. I didn't know anyone but realised that what goes on here, stays here. I also go to meditation and reflexology sessions."

Cancer support nurse Bernie Kirwan says that coming to facilitated groups lessens people’s isolation. “The hardest thing about cancer is the loneliness, even when loads of people are around you. It’s your journey but there is a common bond between people here.” While some of the group are supporting a spouse with cancer, others have sisters or daughters with cancer. The centre also offers counselling to teenagers and runs the Climb [Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery] programme for children who have a family member with cancer.

Jordan says that sometimes it’s hard to admit that you need help as the caregiver. “I was a nurse and in charge of other people but when I come here, it’s a release.” Kirwan says that the “most annoying thing is telling people to be positive. People often say it’s best to put a smile on and not let down your guard but for me, it’s good to have a good cry and look for support.”

Cancer support nurse Catherine Wallace says the relaxed, non-clinical atmosphere of cancer support centres is key. "Hospitals are very busy places where people go for diagnosis, treatment and learn how to deal with side effects. There is rarely time to deal with the emotional impact of the illness," she says. The Hope Cancer Support Centre doesn't offer any medical advice and only offers therapies, recommended for people with cancer. "We allow people to talk things through so that they might go back to their consultants with a few different questions," says Wallace.

“Often when people are finished the rollercoaster of treatment, they feel like the safety net is taken away and this can be quite a difficult time for them. People can join the drop-in groups after the initial assessment by a cancer support nurse and come and go as they like. We respond to the needs of our clients and it works holistically. It’s a privilege to be with people, share what’s going on and walk part of their journey with them.”

Cancer Support Centres in Ireland

There are 39 cancer support centres in Ireland affiliated to the Irish Cancer Society. Cancer support centres affiliated to the Irish Cancer Society receive free staff training and financial support up to €750 to offset the cost of travelling to networking and training events. The Irish Cancer Society first launched its affiliation programme in 2011 and each affiliation period lasts for three years. The current period of affiliation ends in 2017. To remain affiliated to the Irish Cancer Society, community-led cancer support centres must comply with various policies including having charitable status, professional therapies and confidentiality and complaints procedures.

Cancer support centres also receive Irish Cancer Society funding for professional counselling, and evidence-based psycho-educational groups. These include the six-week prostate cancer programme, the Living Life group for people with a diagnosis of secondary cancer and the Strides for Life, 15-week physical activity programme designed to reduce the risk of secondary cancer.

Each cancer support centre relies on a mix of voluntary funds from charity shops, large fund-raising events and individual donations and grants from the Irish Cancer Society. The Irish Cancer Society granted €442,000 to their affiliated supports centres in 2016.

Cancer Support Centres

ARC Cancer Support Centre: ARC House, 65 Eccles Street, Dublin – – 01 830 7333.

ARC Cancer Support Centre: 559 South Circular Road, Dublin 8 – – 01 707 8880.

Arklow Cancer Support Group: 8 St Mary's Road, Arklow, Co Wicklow – – 085 110 0066.

Balbriggan Cancer Support Group: Unit 23, Balbriggan Industrial Park, Harry Reynold's Road, Balbriggan, Co Dublin – – 086 164 2234.

Ballinasloe Cancer Support Centre: Main Street, Ballinasloe, Co Galway –

Brain Tumour Support Group: Medical Social Work Department, St Luke's Hospital, Highfield Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6 – 01 4065163.

Cancer Information & Support Centre: Limerick University Hospital, Dooradoyle, Limerick – – 061 485 163.

Cancer Support Sanctuary LARCC: Coole Road Multyfarnham, Mullingar, Co Westmeath – – 044 937 1971.

CanTeen Ireland: Carmichael Centre North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7 – – 01 872 2012.

Cara Cancer Support Centre: 7 Williamsons Place, Dundalk, Co Louth – – 042 937 4905.

Cara Iorrais Cancer Support Centre: 2 Church Street, Belmullet, Co Mayo – – 097 205 90.

CARE Cancer Support Centre: 14 Wellington Street, Clonmel, Co Tipperary – – 052 618 2667.

Circle of Friends Cancer Support Centre: Station House, Station Street, Tipperary Town –

Cois Nore Cancer Support Centre, Kilkenny: 8 Walkin Street, Kilkenny – – 056 775 2222.

Coiste Scaoil Saor Ó Ailse: C/O Ionad Naomh Pádraig, Upper Dore Bunbeg, Letterkenny, Co Donegal – – 086 825 9752.

Cork ARC Cancer Support House: Cliffdale, 5 O'Donovan Rossa Rd, Cork –; – 021 427 6688.

Cuan Cancer Social Support & Wellness Group: 2nd Floor, Cootehill Credit Union, 22-24 Market Street, Cootehill, Co Cavan – – 049 555 6089.

Cuisle Cancer Support Centre: Block Road, Portlaoise, Co Laois – – 057 868 1492.

Dochas Offaly Cancer Support: Teach Dochas Offaly Street, Tullamore, Co Offaly – – 057 932 8268.

Dublin West Cancer Support Group: Generic Social Work Department, Oak Unit, Cherry Orchard Hospital, Ballyfermot, Dublin 10 – 01 620 6275.

Eist Cancer Support Centre Carlow: The Waterfront Mill Lane, Carlow – – 085 144 0510.

Gary Kelly Cancer Support Centre: George's Street, Drogheda, Co Louth – – 041 980 5100.

Greystones Cancer Support: La Touche Place, Greystones, Co Wicklow – – 01 287 1601.

Hand in Hand: Oranmore Business Park, Oranmore, Co Galway – – 087 660 0103.

Hope Cancer Support Centre: 22 Weafer Street, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford – – 053 923 8555.

Kerry Cancer Support Group: Acorn Centre Apartment, 124 Tralee Town Centre Apartments, Main Street, Tralee, Co Kerry – – 086 028 9004.

Mayo Cancer Support Association: Rock Rose House, 32 St Patrick's Avenue, Castlebar, Co Mayo – – 097 81806.

Midlands Myeloma Support Group: C/O Rohdu, Tullamore General Hospital, Tullamore, Co Offaly – – 086 7804007.

Purple House Cancer Support: Aubrey Court, Parnell Road, Bray, Co Wicklow – 01 2866 966.

Recovery Haven: 5 Haig's Terrace, Tralee, Co Kerry – – 066 7192122.

Roscommon Cancer Support Group: Vita House Family Centre, Abbey Street, Roscommon – – 090 6626842.

Sligo Cancer Support Centre: 44 Wine Street, Sligo – – 071 9170399.

Solas Cancer Support Centre: Williamstown, Waterford – – 051 304 604.

Suaimhneas Cancer Support Centre: 2 Clonaslee Gortland Roe, Nenagh, Co Tipperary – – 067 37403.

Suir Haven Cancer Support Centre: Clongour Road Clongour, Thurles, Co Tipperary – – 0504 21197.

Tallaght Cancer Support Group: Trustus House, 1-2 Main Street Tallaght, Dublin 24 – – – 086 400 2736.

Tuam Cancer Care Centre: Cricket Court, Dunmore Road, Tuam, Co Galway – – 093 28522.

Wicklow Cancer Support Centre: Unit 2, First Floor Rear of Butler's Medical Hall Abbey Street, Wicklow – – 0404 326 96.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment