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Dame Laura Lee, The Driving Force Behind Maggie's

The ground-breaking charity that's transforming cancer care across the globe
Dame Laura Lee, the driving force behind Maggie's

Laura Lee has made some of the most transformational changes to global cancer care over the last three decades.

Impressive! But try telling that to her dad.

The former oncology nurse helped Maggie Keswick Jencks realise her dream of establishing a beautiful sanctuary of support for people with cancer and their families. And, as CEO for the last 27 years, she has helped turn that first Maggie's in Edinburgh into a growing network stretching across the UK and overseas.

Her tireless work was recognised when she was made a Dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2019. But her dad David, of Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, kept her feet planted firmly on the ground. When she broke the good news to him in a phone call, he started singing 'There Is Nothin' Like A Dame', from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific musical.

Laura said, "I think my parents are a bit bemused. My dad phones me every day to ask me 'Where are you?', 'What are you doing?', 'What are you up to?' because he has an absolute work ethic. He likes to check in and make sure I'm at work and doing something good.

"Obviously the Damehood was a bit of 'What is that? People of our ilk, that doesn't happen to us.'

"When I phoned home and I got my dad and I said, 'I've got this letter and I've just Googled what it is,' and so of course I got the Dame song sung back at me.

"It's immediately what a Scots father would do, isn't it? Start to take the mickey out of any achievement. Put you back in your place. So, I know my place at home."

Her mum Betty didn't exactly boost her ego either when a teenage Laura first revealed she wanted to be a nurse. She said, "I said to my mum that I was thinking about doing nursing and she just laughed at me and said I was most uncaring person."

Laura laughs as she recounts her parents' reactions to some of her big life milestones. Her self-effacing nature is at odds with the remarkable success of Maggie's. A success that she is at pains to stress is down to the dedication of the teams, not just her.

But it was just Maggie and her in the beginning.

Laura was mum-of-two Maggie's clinical nurse specialist in Edinburgh when she was being treated for the breast cancer which finally stole her away at the age of 53.

Laura was Maggie's confidante when she dreamed of and planned a radical new cancer support centre next door to the hospital.

Laura was Maggie's constant companion on the journey to realise that dream.

Laura was Maggie's choice to head that first centre at the Western General when it opened in 1996, which sadly and cruelly Maggie never got to witness.

Laura was Maggie's and, truth to tell, Laura IS Maggie's. Not that she would thank anyone for saying it. She said, "Maggie's isn't about me. If I leave tomorrow, Maggie's will continue to thrive in terms of what each centre does and will continue to want to have more centres.

"Maggie's success is around a set of values and principles that Maggie gave to me and, hopefully, I give to each of those who run our centres.

"Yes, I've played my part. I'm passionate, challenged and committed to helping more people with cancer. The best way to do that is to have a brilliant group of people around you who are committed to the same thing - and I think we've got that here.

"If you like, the success of Maggie's is because of those values that have driven us - of giving and receiving. We have only been successful because we have done it together, so it's a group of people who have helped Maggie's grow and be successful."

Would all those brilliant people be steeped in the granular detail? From the welcome as people step through the door right down to what kind of crockery to buy for a centre, fabrics, furniture, rugs. The list goes on. But Laura knows (because it was Maggie's firm belief) that environment matters. The unique grand designs of each Maggie's centre has architects queuing up to spearhead the next one.

And they have a tough audience. Laura, those around her are very keen to point out, is something of an architectural expert now herself. She - as Maggie did - knows exactly what she wants. Because it's important. She said, "I'm very pragmatic on the one hand, because you have to be.

"If you don't take care of the quality of the mugs and the glasses, there's no point in just having a nice building. You have to take care of the attention to detail.

"That detail is about how someone is welcomed as they come in the door. The height and quality of seats people sit on, skills and capability of staff.

"I'm passionate that you have to pay attention to the details, so I haven't stepped away from that at all.

"Yes, I think that is an irritant to some of my colleagues when I am always spotting when things could be better and always attempting to make improvements.

"Hopefully, I do it in a way - I think I do it in a way - that people understand that it is wanting the best for those with cancer coming in the door."

That's vital because cancer is still as big and scary a word now as it was 27 years ago. Medicine has evolved, treatments have advanced. But the terror of cancer has not abated.

Maggie herself knew that there was a desperate need for a place where cancer patients - and their families - could step away from the hurly-burly of the hospital environment. A place to come to terms with the sledgehammer blow of diagnosis, to seek emotional and financial help, the company of others in the same turmoil. For family and friends to learn, to be supported so they can support.

Maggie and her American husband, Charles, wanted a place that meant nobody would 'lose the joy living in the fear of dying.' Her vision was one centre. There are now 24 in the UK (with 360 employees) - and another six in development. There are three abroad, too - in Barcelona, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Quite a legacy.

Maggie's thinking changed Laura and set her on a path - but she does concede that personal family tragedy may have played some part when she lost her little brother Norman. She said, "I think retrospectively. My parents lost my brother when he was four and I was six and obviously I have seen the impact of that over the years in different forms.

"They went on and had my two other brothers after Norman's death. But I do think at some level - it's there.

"I had my family gathering for my lunch post getting my Damehood thing.

"We were just having a moment and I was saying a few words round this supper, and I just brought Norman up. I had a moment of feeling tearful and that loss as a family and grief."

She added, "It's not that I haven't gone on and had a great and successful, happy life - but it stays with you."

Perhaps meeting Maggie then was not THE defining moment, but one that crystallized the course of her life. She said, "There was a really interesting moment where I was in discussions with Maggie and there was me as a nurse, her health professional looking after her, learning from her about what she needed as a patient and what she felt was missing from the NHS and then helping to support her in some of the things that she needed and wanted.

"That was me doing my professional job of learning and listening and thinking. Then we got deeper into the idea of her wanting to do something to help others. She had this idea of creating a place when she came back from a trip to the US when she was in remission from her cancer.

"That's when I suppose our relationship started to shift slightly and it became a deeper - still professional - relationship, but a more intense relationship because I suppose I became a conduit to her ideas and a conduit to helping realise some of the things she felt the NHS wasn't delivering.

"The pivotal change in our relationship came when I went on a trip with her to the US to see some of the facilities that she had seen in her first trip post cancer chemotherapy.

"It was then that I spent this intense week staying at her house in Los Angeles, visiting those places together and seeing them through her eyes as someone with cancer.

"It wasn't long after I came back from that week's trip that her cancer reoccurred.

"And so it was actually a very emotional time for me because I had deepened in my personal feeling towards her, but there I was still having to administer chemotherapy and knowing as the health professional just really how serious and life-limiting and precarious her position was.

"It was emotionally a journey for me, too, but not one that I ever regretted."

Laura had a glimpse of the power of a Maggie's centre (and the strength of Maggie's vision) on her first days in the job. A patient she had been treating as a nurse role visited the centre to see her in her new role - and opened up in a way she never had in hospital. Laura said, "When we opened the first centre in Edinburgh - Maggie had already died by that point - the same woman that I had been looking after and administering chemotherapy came over to the centre to see me in my new role.

"They started telling me about things about their life that they hadn't told me in the clinic area. That was something to do with the building, something to do with the fact that I was one step removed, something to do with the fact that there was time.

"Again, there was that recognition that what Maggie had identified that a Maggie's centre could offer was exactly right.

"It was that space and time that the centre offered and that was what Maggie knew she needed for herself, but also felt and understood that it would be something that would help others.

"I think she got it right in that what the environment does when people come in is help people feel more relaxed, it makes them feel it's a place that they want to be in.

"And actually it does a job of work of supporting and being alongside people and helping the cancer support expert start a relationship with people and get to that relationship that much more quickly because they're not on guard because of the NHS environment that is challenging. It's strip lights, it's corridors, you don't know where you are and you've got health professionals who are busy and moving fast and trying to do something to you so they can move onto the next person.

"Everything about the architecture and environment of Maggie's, which Maggie identified, I think switched that and that bit of what the centre was going to do. I had no idea how important the building and the environment was going to be."

Dame Laura is, by her own admission, frustrated at the pace of progress - despite the incredible success. She said, "I wish Maggie's was able to grow faster. There are 60 cancer centres in the UK and we're only at 24 of them.

"I'm frustrated at those other places who don't have access to a Maggie's centre, their families and friends to the support and to the health professionals getting the added value of a Maggie's helping them care for their patients.

"It's money, it's fundraising. It takes time to raise the money to build a building and we've had to make sure we have been able to grow our revenue to support the staff to be able to give the care in each of our centres."

She added, "I'm probably more frustrated today than I was 10 or 15 years ago. I can see the impact Maggie's has even more so because of the network of centres.

"What I do know though is that the success of what we have been able to achieve today has been down to extraordinary and amazing people."

Some of those 'amazing people' are players of People's Postcode Lottery. Buying tickets has meant over £22 Million has so far been given to Maggie's. She said, "Where People's Postcode Lottery has been an amazing donor is in unrestricted revenue. But it's not just that. They have looked at Maggie's and they believe in us and our business and that we have the skills and expertise to run and deliver Maggie's well.

"Then they invest the players' money and trust us to run the business of Maggie's expertly.

"It means we can invest that money in our growth or we can invest that money in those new centres that are coming on stream."

She added, "Lots of people come and visit us wanting to learn from what we've done and how we do it.

"That's again one of the things that's great about being part of the Postcode Lottery family with the other charities, where we can all help and share and learn from each other so that we can all be more than the sum of our own parts."

Dame Laura has a life outside of work. Any energy she might have left is channelled into swimming (she's a member of the Serpentine Swimming Club in London) and running.

Oh, and there's the small matter of raising three kids. Sons David, 25, and Jonathan, 20, are studying philosophy at Glasgow University and daughter Katie, 23, is a student of fine art at Edinburgh.

But when you ask if she ever really switches off from work/cancer - her answer is all about work/cancer. She said, "Every day, centres see someone who is coming in with a difficult story who may have presented with late disease, families distressed - maybe having to have those difficult conversations about approaching death.

"But there are also stories of people who have got a cancer diagnosis and, with support, go on and survive their cancer. We're supporting them with how to get back to work and how to talk to their children.

"There's really difficult stuff happening day in, day out, of people learning to live with no longer being able to have children, who have lost someone that they love, who have their sexual function altered as a result of their cancer treatment, who are living with the anxiety of the cancer coming back.

"The wonderful thing about working with all of that difficult, harrowing stuff that people are having to go through is actually in developing purposeful, deep, meaningful relationships with people.

"When they tell you that you have helped them and Maggie's has helped them, how lucky are we at Maggie's to have been alongside them at the toughest points of their life.

"Actually, on the whole it is a privilege, it is humbling, and it is life-enhancing work rather than work which is so distressing that there isn't the good parts to it.

"When someone has said to you that 'Maggie's saved my life' when you know it is the surgery and the chemotherapy, but actually we have saved them from the mental challenges - that's lucky to have been part of that.

"It is a real privilege."

She added, "The thing that is still the same - we started Maggie's with, 'Can we help with people feeling more in control and more empowered, less alone and isolated, less helpless and more hopeful?'

"Even in the face of the challenge of a cancer diagnosis, hope is a trigger and a light that can help people navigate and find something good about the moment in the day.

"That's what, if you like, is the starting point of what Maggie's was about and is still the thing that I use to gauge if Maggie's is getting it right today. Are we helping people with those feelings?"

Dame Laura, what do you think Maggie herself would say to you now? She takes her time before answering, "I think she might say, 'You were a good clinical nurse specialist, and I picked the right person to run the Edinburgh centre.'

"She might also say that she was amazed that the idea she had - that an army of people then came along to help others and make more centres possible."

Laura adds, "In my Scottish words, I think she would be chuffed. She wouldn't have said that word, but I think she'd be chuffed."

One last question, were you and Maggie friends at the end? She pauses and considers, then smiles. "Yes," she said, "I'd say so." Another pause. Then, "Friends is a big term, isn't it? But, I'd say so."

Visit the Maggie's website (opens in a new tab) to find out more.

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Published: 18/09/2023

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