‘The moment you’re told you’ve got cancer you think you’re going to die’

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As its 10th year comes to an end, Melanie Whitfield-Tinkler talks to Sarah Foster about the Harbour Cancer Support Centre

It’s impossible not to be drawn to the impressive view waiting for you in the room at the top of Gosport bus station.

Overlooking Portsmouth Harbour, it’s the perfect space to encourage quiet reflection.

Sometimes people just stand here and gaze at the comings and goings out on the water below.

Many of them look on in silence, struggling to find the words that will sum up the enormity of what’s going through their minds.

‘The moment you’re told you’ve got cancer, you think you’re going to die,’ explains Melanie Whitfield-Tinkler, the director of the Harbour Cancer Support Centre.

Over the past 10 years she’s seen thousands of people come through the centre’s doors and stare out of these windows.

Sadly, some of those she’s met haven’t got better. But others have gone on to make a full recovery, or at least respond to treatments that will give them hope of a longer life.

Getting them to walk in for the very first time is often one of the hardest tasks Melanie faces.

Admitting you need help doesn’t always come easy, but the centre is dedicated to giving all those who want it the kind of support that it’s not always possible to find elsewhere.

That includes being there for those who’ve been diagnosed themselves, relatives or friends of someone with cancer, and those who have lost a loved one to the disease.

While the bus station isn’t the most glamorous of locations, the rooms above it have been the support centre’s home for the past decade.

As Melanie reflects back on where the years have taken them, she also remembers what it was like in those early days, when no-one knew they even existed.

With a background in bio-medical science and counselling, she’s been at the helm since the beginning.

When Gosport Borough Council let the support centre move into the building, there was a hole in the ceiling and orange carpet tiles on the floor.

At the beginning they could go days without hearing the phone ring, or a single person walking through the door.

Today it’s warm and cosy. Leaflets line the walls and colourful drawings brighten up the staircase.

Open six days a week, there’s always someone here to put the kettle on and have a chat. And the centre now receives more than 100 visits per month.

‘I remember thinking how lucky the local community was that they were going to get this facility,’ remembers Melanie.

‘It’s a very specialised service. I feel very strongly that if you can take what is a very difficult period of time for people – because the point where you’re told you’ve got cancer changes your life – and make that easier, that’s the best thing you can do.’

She adds: ‘We’ve got the big thing that the NHS doesn’t have and that’s time. That’s not a criticism of the doctors and nurses, it’s a fact of life.’

As an independent charity, the centre offers a unique service for those who self-refer themselves.

As well as free, unlimited, counselling sessions, there’s a chance to enjoy complementary therapies and a one-to-one befriending service.

Informal coffee mornings also give people the chance to have a chat and the centre operates on a drop-in basis.

It costs around £65,000 a year to keep it going and while it mainly attracts people from the Gosport and Fareham area, no-one who wants to come will be turned away.

But with no core funding and the country as a whole facing a bleak time economically, the centre has been through many ups and downs in its 10-year history.

People sometimes mistakenly think that the support centre comes under the Macmillan organisation’s umbrella. While the Macmillan support centre in Portsmouth will point people in Harbour’s direction, it receives no financial support from it or any other cancer charity.

The pressure of relying solely on public donations and grants could have changed this place forever a while ago.

Melanie admits that they had to look seriously at whether it could continue to survive as an independent service.

But in the end they decided not to join forces with other cancer support organisations, fearing that giving up their independence would mean losing their flexibility.

And as Melanie stresses, that’s one of the things about Harbour that she’s most proud of.

‘The services that we offer are what people need,’ she adds. ‘We are totally flexible to the client.

‘We don’t have a set number of counselling or befriending sessions. We’ve had clients who have come here for years.

‘We often see people who’ve been told they can have six counselling sessions but I feel very strongly that you can’t fit people into a box like that.’

That philosophy extends to making sure that the centre’s trained counsellors are also there for people when they’ve been told they are clear from cancer.

‘We get a lot of people who get better and all the family and friends expect life to be the same,’ explains Melanie.

‘If you’ve been through a cancer journey, your life isn’t normally the same. Your outlook changes. It makes you look at what’s important in life.’

As the celebration year draws to a close, Melanie knows that the charity must continue to attract support – both in donations and via volunteers who are willing to give up their time to organise fundraising events on their behalf.

Before training as a counsellor, she worked in the cancer unit at Southampton General Hospital and believes the way society views the disease has changed.

‘I think cancer is talked about more. People are more realistic now that it’s something that you can survive, you can live with.

‘I’ve only probably seen that over the past three years. People are living with cancer, they are having ongoing treatment.

‘People are more open. Cancer is still a scary word, but maybe not quite as bad as it once was.’

There are not many charity directors who combine an administrative role with counselling, but Melanie’s hands-on.

She counts one of the centre’s biggest achievements as helping distressed people walk out feeling like they’ve got a life in front of them.

‘It’s not just a job,’ she adds. ‘I don’t believe you can do this and treat it like a job.

‘I’m proud of where the centre has got to in 10 years. There are an awful lot of people who’ve been involved in it. They would put their hands up and admit that they didn’t always believe that we’d get to where we are.

‘But it’s the support of people that’s got us here.’