Megan Simpkins, a volunteer for Dimbleby Cancer Care and cancer survivor, spoke with me in November 2014 in one of my first ever podcast interviews. You can read the interview below, or listen to it here.
Megan shares how she felt when she found out she had cancer, the support Dimbleby Cancer Care gave her, why she started volunteering for the organisation, her favourite memory (it involves Samantha Cameron), and some good news from Dimbleby Cancer Care.
Dimbleby Cancer Care was established in memory of Broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in 1966. The charity is based at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals, and aims to provide practical and psychological support to people living with cancer and to their families and carers
Nisha: Hi Megan, can you tell us a little about Dimbleby Cancer Care?
Megan: Yes, Dimbleby Cancer Care is a drop in centre at Guys and St Thomas hospitals in London. It’s there to support and work alongside the professionals dealing with the after care of cancer patients. This is all to do with the psychological support, the caring support, they offer stress management support, and they have a section for benefit support for people who are worried about how they are going to manage while they are going through the process to beat cancer.
So there is a whole team there part of the not-for-profit organisation that solely depends on fundraising and is there to help and support people with cancer. The footfall is amazing, around 100 patients a week are supported by Dimbleby Cancer Care. They are now building a new centre at Guys Hospital specifically for caring for people with cancer.
Nisha: You have been involved with the organisation for 2 years now, how did you first get involved?
Megan: After I had all the services I was astonished to find out they solely rely on fundraising. Apart from Jonathan and David and the Trustees at Dimbleby Cancer Care who have been working very hard since Richard died, they had a few volunteers but it wasn’t something they promoted.
I went and met with Robin Pritchard who is the Director of Marketing there and I just said to him, ‘What can I do? Tell me what I can do to help’. And then it just snowballed. The first thing I did was a pub quiz at my local pub and it was fantastic. A friend of mine, Julie, helped me organise some local people within the community to donate some prizes and we ended up raising £1500 just from the pub quiz. I thought to myself, ‘That was pretty easy!’. Robin came along, he brought some lovely prizes, like some cookbooks from Jamie Oliver, and also from Leon. We just had some nice prizes plus people had a lot of fun at the quiz night.
So after that Robin asked me to sing in a choir in 2013 which was being held in a beautiful church and while I was there Jonathan took me to one side and said ‘Would you mind standing up and saying a few words about Dimbleby Cancer Care’ and I said ‘Oh no of course not!’ so he pulls up a chair and he puts me on it and I suppose there were about 100 people there, and I just started saying about my experience at Dimbleby Cancer Care. I ended up singing in the choir, I mainly mimed my way through it because I have a terrible voice! It was such a wonderful experience.
Nisha: You mentioned you have used their services, how did you hear about Dimbleby Cancer Care to first get in touch with them, and can you tell us a little about your story?
Megan: Of course, I want to share this because when you are first told you have cancer it is shocking. The nurse rang me up at 4pm and she said ‘Oh we want to see you again’ and I said ‘Oh yes, when?’ and she said ‘tomorrow’ I asked why, and she said ‘there was an anomaly, I’m really sorry to tell you this we’ve discovered you have stage 1 cancer’.
It hits you like a train and I walked around the house, I was on my own, swearing like a fish wife, looking in the mirror saying
‘OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, I’ve got cancer!‘
You don’t realise even when they are saying what stage you have got, and she said to me ‘You are very lucky you’ve caught it very early’.
It doesn’t sink in, all you hear are the words ‘cancer‘, and ‘we need to see you immediately‘.
I phoned a girlfriend of mine who I helped through Breast Cancer, she lived in Suffolk, and she came down from Suffolk to come to the hospital with me. I can talk quite a lot but I actually couldn’t speak at all during the whole thing. While I was at the hospital I had a fantastic staff and support from the NHS, the team were brilliant.
You get a pack with all the forms you have to sign because I was going to go to hospital within two weeks to have an operation. Amongst the pack is your after care information. It was after I had the operation that I was at home lying on the couch, I thought ‘I’ll just have a look’. I was reading the Dimbleby Cancer Care pamphlet and it was saying the services that are offered, one was complimentary massage. I thought I’d really love one of those, I was feeling a bit stiff and sore and stitches were all healing. I thought ‘I can’t ring up, I only had stage 1 cancer I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiotherapy, I sort of had a lucky cancer‘. Eventually I thought I’ll ring up and the lady on the phone, Emma, said ‘Of course you must come in, of course you are entitled to come and have a free massage.’
I had 6 free massages – all the services provided by Dimbleby Cancer Care are completely free.
I spent most of my recovery teasing my girlfriends about the fact that they had to look after me and run after me and I could order them about. They’d take me shopping, my house was full of flowers the whole time, and I was really spoilt, and I always joked about it but I didn’t realise that emotionally I was holding back the fear of ‘what if this comes back’.
When I walked in to get a free massage I was all upbeat, the minute she started massaging me I burst into tears. I said ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m just so frightened – if I didn’t know I had cancer before how am I ever going to know if I have it again. I know I shouldn’t talk about this, they said they got it all’.
All these fears came out, and they were absolutely brilliant.
They let you talk, I cried, I laughed. I went back for my full 6 sessions, and after that I thought ‘that was really good, what else can I do?’ and one of the things Dimbleby Cancer Care do is a makeup course for women who have lost their hair or have low self-esteem, it’s a way of bringing cancer patients together to talk about their experiences because after a while you don’t want to talk about your experiences – especially the British – I’m Australian and will tell any Tom, Dick, and Harry!
I went along to this session, there were about 20 women in the room. All the big make up companies give generously to make up the little packs. You learn how to apply makeup and they give you a pack of goodies. It was really interesting to watch the other women in the room. Some were wearing wigs and I felt so humbled to be there because, in a way my cancer was easily fixed by an operation which was painful and I was very sick, but these women were having continual therapies.
The lady beside me said, ‘I haven’t left the house, I won’t leave the house‘. I asked why, and she said ‘I had cancer on my face‘.
I looked at her and I couldn’t even see it. They had done such a fantastic job. They had taken away part of her lip and rebuilt her lip from a skin graft from her thigh and you couldn’t even tell but she wouldn’t even leave the house. I looked at her and I said ‘Oh goodness, I’m Australian, half my friends don’t have any faces at all!’
The Dimbleby Cancer Care makeup course made her feel amazing.
We were all sitting there telling each other how beautiful we looked and there were people who didn’t have hair, you know. The ones that were quiet when they first arrived they came out of their shell. There were some that didn’t want to talk and we all respected that as well. People deal with these things in completely different ways. I’ve always been brought up with the ‘she’ll be right attitude’.
It’s not just them that are suffering but their families too. The stories I heard about friends who they thought were friends who couldn’t cope with them having cancer and ran away, it was a complete eye opener and it was wonderful to be in a room full of inspiring women who were going through different types of cancer treatments. Some had really amazing stories. It was a fantastic opportunity.
After that, I thought ‘I want to experience all of this‘.
I was going through a really tough time emotionally as well as I was in a job that I thought was safe but I was put in redundancy just before I had cancer, and then 2 weeks after I decided to go back to work I was put in redundancy again. I thought, ‘I need some help with this’, so I went on the Dimbleby Cancer Care stress management course. The stress management course was an 8 week course for 2 hours each. They talk to you about how you deal with stress, what’s important. In that course it wasn’t just women but men as well and that was great because you forget how men deal with cancer, they shut down, and you sort of think ‘it’s harder for men as they should have this hard exterior’, but they suffer the same fears as we do.
It was just brilliant, we did breathing exercises, lots of NLP type courses which teach you how to get over your fears. And you are just mixing once again with people who have been through different scenarios and are struggling.
After that course it was magnificent – the day I finished the course I came out and I was offered another job. I was leaning on the fence of St Thomas’ Hospital negotiating my salary, and I was completely calm and before I would have in a stressed state because I was going through redundancy and should just take the job but it made me slow down and calm down to be able to think about my future and what I was worth. Fortunately for me the company that hired me I had worked for previously and they really wanted me so I’m back in a fantastic position.
I don’t think I could have done it if I wasn’t getting those courses through Dimbleby Cancer Care because they were absolutely magnificent and they gave me an avenue to go down over than my family – which was a long way away – and my friends who I treat like a family here.
My friends were absolutely amazing – I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have such fantastic friends and they did look after me, but you think to yourself after 6 weeks – because for 6 weeks I couldn’t do anything I just had to lay on the couch – really you are taking the micky with them running around after you.
I had this thing where if I was feeling a little cranky and they started giving me a hard time I’d say ‘you can’t talk to me like’ and I’d play the cancer card. It became a standard joke where I had this thing called the cancer card and I’d give them a sad look and we’d burst out laughing because I knew I had them at my beck and call, but I didn’t want to burden them. There were days when I was with no one and I’d bawl my eyes out because I was really scared.
It was great for me to go and unload my fears so when I was with my friends I wasn’t a burden. Although I felt like a bit of a burden going to Dimbleby Cancer Care I knew that’s what they are trained to do and at no point in my whole period of getting the therapies did I feel that they weren’t listening to me. If they treat every patient that walks through the door the way they treated me, they are angels as far as I’m concerned.
Nisha: What’s been your favourite memory of your time volunteering at Dimbleby Cancer Care?
I don’t think I can top what happened to me on Tuesday night this week, because I had a private audience with Samantha Cameron at 10 Downing Street. I spoke at a function to raise awareness for Dimbleby Cancer Care. I think my opening line was ‘If I had not have had cancer I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today’.
Walking through those gates towards number 10 Downing Street, I can’t tell you.. I’ve lost both my parents.. my father was British and was in the British Army. It was Remembrance Day when I was at 10 Downing Street. He went to Australia and joined the army there as well, where he met my mother. I had the emotions of the Remembrance Day and I live very much near Tower Bridge so I had spent the week looking at the poppies.
Walking down the path and knocking on the door of 10 Downing Street – a little girl from Brisbane, Australia, and then walking up the stairs, going past the greatest Prime Ministers of our time, and meeting Mrs Cameron, along with Jonathan and David Dimbleby and another cancer patient called Ann, and Ben Elliot who runs a company called Quintessentially.
Samantha Cameron said to me, ‘I’m going to speak, and then I will introduce you’
I think being introduced by the Prime Minister’s wife to speak is something that you don’t get to experience too often.
It was fantastic.
I stood up there, I thought, what if I make a fool of myself, what if I embarrass myself. Then I thought, this isn’t about me, it’s about raising awareness of Dimbleby Cancer Care, and if I can save one person’s life by standing here today and make one person aware so we can raise funds so we can find the cause of this dreaded disease then I’ve done my job.
I’ve got a funny story about this day though. 3 hours before I went to 10 Downing Street I fell down the stairs. I was rushing to try and get to the hairdressers. My heel got caught on the stairs and I hit a brick wall. I thought I’d broken my finger, and I was lying in a heap in the stairwell and the neighbour came through the door and went ‘OMG! Are you OK?!’ I said ‘Oooh I think I’ve hurt myself’. I asked her what my face looks like, and she said ‘well it looks bruised’. I thought ‘I can cover that up with makeup’. I rang Robin and said there will be only one reason why I’m not there tonight, and it’s because I’m in hospital in a coma, because I thought I’d hurt myself really badly. Anyway, so I patched myself and underneath my tights when I went to 10 Downing Street I had band aids all up my legs. I was in a little bit of a surreal mood then. The whole experience was so fantastic.
Robin said, ‘You came to me and said what can I do to help, and there I was watching you with Samantha Cameron watching every word you were saying’. I put on my Facebook page afterwards, ‘if you ever think you can’t do anything to raise money for charity, there is – go do it, whether it’s a coffee morning or a cake stall, these charities need our help’. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve ended up at 10 Downing Street, but it didn’t start out like that.
Nisha: What would you say to someone who has been supported by a charity and they would like to volunteer and help that charity but they are feeling a little bit hesitant?
Ring the charity – there will be someone who will speak to them. Or ask to speak to a charity fundraiser for advice and tips.
Some people do the runs, some climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I started off with a pub quiz and gathering friends around. I also keep a collection tin and put my pennies in there – I can’t believe how quickly that fills up. Even if you put in all your pennies and coppers that money could go to a charity – any charity – all these things you build up can help, because every penny helps. If a million people gave a penny how much it would be worth to the charity. Dimbleby Cancer Care is trying to raise half a million pounds, if you look at how much larger charities make it seems quite small, but every penny counts. You might knit, or sew, you might want to run, cycle, walking – you could spend all day coming up with ideas.
Nisha: You’ve told us so many amazing things about Dimbleby Cancer Care, have you faced any challenges during your volunteering role and can you tell us about them?
Megan: Apart from speaking at 10 Downing Street?!
I think it’s what I do next, what do I do next?! We are trying to engage the local community, there’s a huge community over London Bridge way, that area has come up in demographic and in what is there for the local people. You’ve got these amazing restaurants, for our Christmas carol concert Robin said to me, ‘We are going to go and sing in Bermondsey Street in December. I thought, ‘right, let me see if I can get the local restaurants involved’. So I spent the afternoon walking the length of Bermondsey Street, and asking to speak to the Manager in the restaurants, I had a letter from Dimbleby Cancer Care saying who I was. I thought ‘this is going to be tough’, but actually the feedback I got from the local community was brilliant! Some of the restaurants are going to let us in and sing. So that’s the next thing on the agenda, to get that all organised.
** Dimbleby Cancer Care raised £345 from their Christmas ‘Carols in the Square’ event. Click here for more info and photos **
Then after that I think I should meet The Queen [laughs]. I’ve always wanted to meet The Queen, I’m a real Royalist. I’ve been in Buckingham Palace as a tourist and I’ve seen The Queen on the street and I’m completely in awe of the Royal Family.
It is a challenge to come up with things on how I can help Dimbleby Cancer Care but now I am an Ambassador, this will help them. If I have a voice and my voice helps Dimbleby Cancer Care then I will stand up at any function with any amount of people for the people who will still be willing to listen and that’s how I will help them.
Nisha: What’s the one thing you wish more people knew about Dimbleby Cancer Care?
Megan: That it’s not funded, it’s the Trustees and the Dimbleby family who have raised all the money, along with the volunteers. I’m not sure I can say this but I’m going to, what astonished me when I first started to talking to Robin, I’d say, ‘David and Jonathan really have to get out there and really use their profile, because this is going to open up so many doors’. But they for so long didn’t want to be seen to be doing that – this is my view only. It’s interesting since they formed a partnership with Quintessentially, it’s opening doors, and that’s what is so fantastic.
The service Dimbleby Cancer Care provide is only small. They are going to need more therapists, more people on the board. They can’t afford to employ people. Especially with the rates of cancer coming up and people coming forward more. People were dying years ago because no one ever spoke about cancer. Now everyone talks about cancer. They’ve got a friend, a family – everyone is touched by the word cancer. This particular charity which is based in two of the biggest and most famous hospitals in the UK need the support. I’m not at liberty to say but I nearly dropped dead when I found out how little money they had and how it was basically mouth to mouth. When the new cancer care centre has been built there is going to be a huge amount of people walk through the door – they are going to need the money. Without donations they will not survive.
Nisha: One of the reasons I started the Good News Shared website and this podcast is to raise awareness of all the awesome things going on in the world. You’ve already shared a lot of good news, but do you have any other good news you’d like to share from Dimbleby Cancer Care?
Megan: The new cancer care centre is going to be an amazing thing for the community, the hospitals, and the people in London. The shell of the building is up now. It will be open in 2016.
Also, for every patient that goes in, Dimbleby Cancer Care provide a free pillow. This was started because when Richard Dimbleby Jonathan and David would go visit him and say ‘what can we give you, how can we help?’, and he said ‘I’d just like a pillow that’s comfortable’, so they now give pillows to patients.
Anyone who wants to speak to Robin about Dimbleby Cancer Care he’d be grateful to have that opportunity.
Please go to the Dimbleby Cancer Care website for more information.