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South East Cancer Help Centre: 'Life-saving' Purley charity turns 30

PURLEY'S very own South East Cancer Help Centre is supporting hundreds of people through the killer disease, which develops in more than one in three people across the UK. David Churchill went to find out more about the 'life-saving' charity as it celebrates its 30th birthday... "ABOUT 25 weeks ago, I would have walked out in front of a car and finished my life. I was that devastated, but now I'm here, I'm OK."

Mother-of-seven Sandra Key, 54, is typical of members of Purley-based South East Cancer Help Centre (SECHC).

She remembers a time when she was "on death row". And then she remembers how her life changed after stepping through the front door of SECHC.

"At one point during my cancer, I was absolutely on death row. My body was that ill. At the time, I could have quite easily left my family and given up. But now I'm looking at everything very positively and my whole life has changed.

"Without the help I've had here, I don't think I would be here and would not have kept on putting up a fight while in remission. The centre has changed my whole life and outlook.

"It has been a life-saver. People have probably felt like me but don't know where to go. I honestly think if it wasn't for the centre I wouldn't be here today, because of the support I have been given.

"It is one big help centre, we are all like a big family. You can always talk to someone here and they will always listen."

Sandra, from Croydon, told how her cancer became so advanced, that while waiting for a life or death operation at Croydon University Hospital, a priest was sent to her bedside to baptise her in front of her emotional family, after doctors gave her just a slim chance of surviving the bowel cancer operation.

"My family thought I was going to die," she said.

"It was so bad a priest came and baptised me because they'd said to my son and husband I probably wasn't going to make it."

But despite surviving the operation, it wasn't until becoming a regular at SECHC that she began to recover from her illness fully.

Now in its 30th year, Purley Cross-based SECHC has grown from humble beginnings in a Caterham living room, to a centre with four therapy rooms, a community hall and offers more than 20 clubs and treatments.

Meanwhile its membership base has grown from just a handful to more than 500 members a year who use the centre weekly or biweekly.

It offers support to people from across generations, from those in their 20s to people in their 90s, and has helped more than 10,000 people in their fight against cancer since its inception.

It runs everything from reflexology and hypnotherapy treatments, to arts and craft and drama sessions, with counselling offered in between.

Beryl Evans, from Caterham, who became a regular at the centre nearly three years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer, said it is the aspect of psychological well-being alongside, and after, the harsh reality of going under the knife, which helps to boost people's recovery.

She said: "I think in a lot of places you are just seen as the cancer rather than the person, but here you are seen as the person rather than the cancer.

"It's the psychological well-being you get here, and I have also met so many friends along the way."

Mrs Evans added: "We're one big family."

With more than one in three people in the UK developing cancer in their lifetime, and with someone being diagnosed every two minutes, demand has never been higher for cancer services beyond those received in hospitals and NHS centres.

But amid a stubborn recession which continues to squeeze charities, SECHC needs the support of its community to remain such a strong force for the next 30 years.

Whereas five years ago it held 18 months' running costs in surplus, it now only holds just six.

It has an army of 70 volunteers, three full-time and two part-time staff, but needs more volunteers and donations to continue the good work.

Centre manager Nina Guha said: "It is a difficult time for charities and we do need the help of our local community to keep going.

"We have huge recognition from the hospitals with people who have come from the Royal Marsden, Mayday and St George's.

"We are very proud to be a part of the community and very proud to have reached our 30th year, which I think is a great achievement and we hope we can continue that."

Beautician Tereza Groth-Andersen, 50, gives members of SECHC deep cleansing, exfoliating and stimulating facials and massages alongside counselling and activity groups. The beautician of three years said: "The way it helps is that people get a little bit of me time. It is the feeling that they are having time spent on themselves. "If they are feeling good they know they look good and it gives them a lift and a spark in their day. Lots of people say they're invigorated by it and it makes them ready to face the day. "It's healing from the inside. It's a time when people get 45 minutes undivided, soothing attention and this is complementary alongside the counselling that people receive." Centre chair Jennifer Mollett, 65, told how the group has grown from a handful of members in the living room of Avril Hinckley, who founded the charity in her Caterham home. But the centre, based in floor space donated by Tesco, now sees around 500 members a year and offers them more than 20 different therapies and group activities. Jennifer said: "Lots of members say they get their diagnosis and feel they have lost control. "People here can choose what therapies they like and that gives them back control. But people come here, they realise they are not the only person going through it and it normalises things. That is the biggest help, the participation in something. "Not only do we offer a lot of therapies, but the staff have been here for years and years and so are very committed and caring towards the members. They remember who they are and why they are coming here." Nina Guha, centre manager, said more men now attend the centre and take part in the special prostate talk sessions, and encouraged more men to use the service.. She said: "It is an isolating experience for men. It is the case with a lot of them they are dragged into it by their wife or daughter. But what we are saying to people is, don't suffer in silence. "More and more men are starting to come now when we perhaps only had an 80/20 balance before, we're seeing a 65/35 now in terms of women and men." The charity, which opens Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday, 9am to 1pm, would like to thank Tesco for donating the floor space of the centre, a generous act which the centre estimates is worth about £20,000 in funding a year.

To find out more about how to support the charity, visit http:/www.sechc.org.uk or call 020 8668 0974

South East Cancer Help Centre: 'Life-saving' Purley charity turns 30

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