Pink Ladies receive £500k birthday boost as they step up cancer battle

Michelle McLaren, Judith McCann, Angela McGowan and Karen Mullan MLA cutting a cake at the Pink Ladies Big Lottery Award celebration day, earlier this week, in Bishop Street Community Centre. DER2118GS003
Michelle McLaren, Judith McCann, Angela McGowan and Karen Mullan MLA cutting a cake at the Pink Ladies Big Lottery Award celebration day, earlier this week, in Bishop Street Community Centre. DER2118GS003

For over a decade Derry’s Pink Ladies have pioneered a unique survivor-designed network for cancer sufferers and their families in an area of evident and growing need, writes Kevin Mullan.

Since 2013 their brothers, the Pink Panthers, have been joined in the ladies’ campaign.

Together they have helped steadily improve the experiences of those who may have had to cope with a cancer diagnosis or bereavement, while encouraging the undiagnosed to get checked out if exhibiting any of the early warning signs.

On Wednesday these inspirational campaigners got together in the Bishop Street Community Centre for the Pink Ladies’ 13th birthday bash, a celebratory occasion despite the often painful experiences of members. A few ‘hip, hip hurrays’ were certainly in order. The charity has just received a £500,000 boost from the Big Lottery Fund, which will effectively meet its staffing overheads for the next four years.

The cash will equally allow the Pink Ladies/Panthers extend their support services to Limavady and Strabane and in an unprecedented move for a voluntary cancer charity place prevention at the heart of what it does.

Jacqui Loughrey is the Pink Ladies’ new education and prevention officer, one of three staff who have been employed directly as a result of the lottery funding allocation.

She says the money will make a huge difference to the organisation, its members, and the lives of countless Derry people affected by cancer.

“It’s going to change the life of the organisation and it’s going to help change the lives of many people in this community who have had a cancer diagnosis, their families, their friends, their carers.

“Mainly the money will be used for wages, so we were able to employ three more members of staff, which is big for the organisation. Cancer has affected everybody in Derry and it continues to affect them. The worry is that it’s actually affecting more and more young people.

“We can definitely see a change in the age group that we are supporting. It’s a known fact that over 55,000 women under the age of 50 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the United Kingdom so the need is growing.”

The well-merited award of half-a-million pounds means the ladies won’t have to worry about where the money’s coming from to meet their wage bill for a few years at least. But funds still have to be collected to extend an already ambitious range of programming.

James ‘Banty’ Nash, a cancer survivor himself and the co-chair of the Pink Ladies/Pink Panthers organisations, explains: “We still have to fundraise because the Pink Ladies and Pink Panthers want to build on the programmes we are already running.

“We want further programmes, we want to extend them. There’s still a lot to be done in terms of fundraising. It’s not a matter of getting funding from the Big Lottery Fund and that’s it. It takes a lot of funding to run these programmes. Thankfully the people of Derry have been fantastic for the past 13 years.”

This week’s birthday party was an opportunity to showcase the wide ranges of courses and services the Pink Ladies provide. Creative writing, art therapy and drama are all on the curriculum. And though not immediately obvious to those who haven’t experienced the disease directly, how art might help sufferers, there are very real benefits.

“A lot of our activities are fun activities but there’s always a method to the madness. We have a lot of people who are cancer thrivers who are still on treatment and one of the downsides of the treatment is that it affects your memory. At some of the art and drama events they have to learn their lines. It stimulates memory,” says Jacqui, who, like most members and many staff, has come through the illness herself.

““We have falls prevention because the chemotherapy and radiotherapy can make you unsteady on your feet.

“These programmes are so vital for the community and so vital for the support groups.”

This chimes with ‘Banty’, who says rolling the services out to all arts and parts of the city has been a pleasant eye-opener. Paradoxically, cancer is a great unifier. The camaraderie survivors develop while fighting the disease regardless of creed, colour, gender or nationality, is a powerful thing.

“Even on a local basis we do a lot of reaching out. People in Derry maybe don’t know some of the areas we visit. I went over to Irish Street [a largely loyalist/unionist area]. It was the first time I’d been there in over 46 years, an area maybe beforehand I‘d have been a bit apprehensive about visiting but the minute I went in I was made very welcome. It completely blew my mind.”

The Creggan man says he is looking forward to more and more of this type of outreach.

“It’s no longer Derry. It’s gone beyond that. We’re now in Limavady and in Strabane and our intention is to move beyond that again, just extend the services as far as we can.”

As well as letting the Pink Ladies spread their wings the windfall will also allow Jacqui to ratchet up the cancer prevention message in schools and community centres.

“In the course of my research over three and half years we focused a lot on alcohol, smoking, obesity, exercise and diet. Only five per cent of the cancer budget is spent on prevention. There is increasing evidence to show that chemicals have an impact on our hormone system and we should be looking out for different things, personal skincare, what we cook with, what we wear.

“So I’ve developed a programme around that and I’ll be going into schools to get the prevention message out. The alcohol and smoking message has been out there ad nauseum. But hormone-related illnesses are on the increase, they are crippling the NHS: ADHD, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer. I’m actually working in collaboration with a professor in Queen’s, Dr. Lisa Connolly, who has been given a grant of £4.5m to study this. I’m working in partnership with her,”

If all this sounds a bit high-spec the ladies’ core ethos remains exactly that which it was when they started out in 2005: grass-roots self-help.

‘Banty’ recalls a moving case when a local resident sat in on a Pink Panthers session before turning on his heels without saying a word.

“He didn’t seem too impressed, you know. Is there anything that we did wrong? He said, ‘Not at all. I haven’t been well for a couple of days. I came into that meeting wanting to ask questions. The reason I left was because I got all the answers but I will come back.’ Unfortunately that individual passed away. For that reason I never like to miss a meeting because I always feel the day you miss a meeting might be the day someone’s looking for help.”