Originally published in December 2002 icon, updated June 2007
"No one should have to have to face breast cancer alone"
It´s four years since we prepared a report on the Breast Cancer Haven in London, although we have a lot in common and visit them regularly. We sent our journalist Ginny Fraser, herself a former cancer patient to ´visit´ them.
Walking into the Breast Cancer Haven in London is a little like taking a long cool drink when you are very thirsty on a hot day, or finally sitting down in front of the fire with a cup of tea at the end of a long, chilly journey home from work.
It has the "phew" factor; the sense of being able to relax, let go and feel better. Quite a contrast to the experience of cancer treatment many of us will have experienced in hospital.
The Breast Cancer Haven has been specifically designed to provide a safe, friendly and caring environment where people with breast cancer can heal in mind and body in conjunction with whatever conventional medical treatment they receive. Staff are keen to emphasise that it is not an alternative therapies centre, but one that operates in an integrated way with conventional medical treatment including communication with the Visitor´s consultant and GP to ensure the best possible care. (Note: "Visitor" with a capital V is the term the Haven like to use for people who come to the centre and will be used throughout this article).
The facilities are also available to Visitors´ families and friends and, although most of those attending are women, there have been men with breast cancer who have participated in the treatments on offer too.
There are currently two Havens in operation - in London and in Hereford, with more in the pipeline. The goal of the Breast Cancer Haven is to develop a national network, with the next centre scheduled to be in Yorkshire. The one I visited is situated in a quiet road just off the busy Fulham Broadway in London, and it is aptly named. The building is a converted church and benefits from some beautiful ecclesiastical architecture including wooden doors carved with a tree-of-life design. The entrance opens into a large light and airy space. Coloured rugs line the wooden floor; there are modern stained glass windows and the sound of a fountain tinkling away in the background. Seating is provided by comfortable sofas.
There is also an extensive library with a computer terminal available for visitors´ use, plus a range of leaflets - ranging from Breast Cancer Care´s excellent fact-sheets on secondary cancer in the bones or brain, to details of wig suppliers. There is no charge for Visitors as Breast Cancer Haven is a charity.
The first ´Haven´ was founded in 1997 by Sara Davenport who was concerned when her children´s nanny was diagnosed with breast cancer and she realised that there was very little support or information out there for people. Sara´s belief was that "no-one should have to face breast cancer alone" so she set about creating a way to address that. Breast Cancer Haven in London was duly opened in 2000 and the Haven in Hereford in 2004, both by the Prince of Wales and since then they have provided 52,000 Visitor appointments - for nearly 4,000 different Visitors!
Visitors can call in at any time without an appointment but often choose to phone first. Enquirers are sent an information pack and a DVD. Having made the decision to visit, the first step is a consultation with a Senior Therapist who will discuss your individual situation and assess your needs. All Visitors have an allocation of twelve therapy sessions. There is an impressive range to choose from, including acupuncture, Alexander technique, craniosacral therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT); hands-on healing; homeopathy; Indian head massage; kinesiology; massage; medical herbalism; reflexology; reiki and shiatsu which are covered in more detail in the article "Chosing a complementary Therapy". To help you find your way around what´s on offer, a Senior Therapist will explain and make recommendations. The therapies are carried out in private, beautifully decorated colour-themed rooms, which add to the general sense of being cared for and considered. Usually half-way through the twelve sessions - but indeed at any point - Visitors can have another consultation with a Senior Therapist to evaluate progress and make any changes needed.
To help Visitors choose which therapies are right for them there is one-day Haven Introduction in a small group with other women affected by breast cancer. This can be followed by a one-day Haven Retreat where Visitors can really relax and let go of the stresses and tensions of breast cancer - including those derived from its treatments and side-effects! Meeting and talking with other women who have been through - or are in the midst of - a similar experience is one of benefits commonly reported. "However well-intentioned friends and family are it is such a relief to be able to talk to people who know exactly what you´re going through," said one Visitor.
Often the cancer journey can feel like a bit of a marathon that calls on all our resources to get through the diagnosis and treatment. The sense of being cared for that Visitors report is really welcome and contributes hugely to regaining a positive and life-affirming outlook on life.
Counselling is also available and often really important when dealing with what can be such a major life event. Often there are real issues of loss to be grieved - loss of an idea of oneself physically, loss of confidence in your body, loss of the sense of yourself as a healthy person. Cancer also seems to be a trigger for self-examination and a "wake up" call for many people on how they are living their lives and is often a spur for change. Counselling helps with all of that. In fact, Haven counsellor Tricia Cosford speaks of "amazing transformations" taking place for some people through their involvement.
Research - trying to find the facts
The Haven also has an active research programme. It is currently creating a research-based policy on the use of herbs and antioxidants during chemotherapy. This is a contentious issue, with many medical practitioners asking women to cease any naturopathic support during chemotherapy in case it interferes with the treatment. Apart from the recent scientific statements from UCLA and MD Anderson on the benefits, the Haven offers a view that at a time of such stress on the body, surely it needs all the support it can get? The Haven research should be available shortly.
Diet is also specifically addressed, with consultations available with qualified Nutritionists. Visitors are asked to complete a questionnaire and food diary and a healthy eating plan will be recommended. In fact, the workshop booklet that the Haven provides contains a lot of sensible, balanced dietary advice in itself. There are many radical diets out there that people with cancer may hear about, but the Haven does not advise as the execution of these diets can add stress to an already difficult time - the Gerson Therapy for example - and also many different dietary theories which can leave many people confused about what to do for the best. Wondering whether to simply cut out meat and turn your system alkaline or undertaking metabolic typing, which might suggest you eat animal protein would be one such dilemma. In the quest to do everything possible to heal and prevent recurrence many people with cancer end up confused and stressed by the variety of diet advice they hear (including the "eat cream cakes and cheeseburgers" advice in some hospital literature!). (You can, of course, always ask CANCERactive for a Personal Prescription).
The Haven nutritionists claim to take a balanced approach and support people´s choices with practical advice.
Who uses the Haven?
The ways people use the Haven vary. One factor is geographical. Some people come for an assessment plus the Haven Introduction and Retreat only because they live too far away to attend regularly. Others go through the whole process of assessment and therapies - which could take six or nine months. There is also a range of groups and classes that visitors can attend, including art therapy; bra fitting; ear acupuncture; hair and make-up workshops; juicing; meditation; mind-body therapy; Qi Gong; stretch and relaxation and yoga. There are also classes planned on preventing and dealing with lymphoedema, the swelling and fluid collection that sometimes occurs when the cancer treatment has damaged the lymphatic system. There is also a free DVD available on the subject.
Visitors are also encouraged to join an on-going support group. These are facilitated by a Haven counsellor and are an opportunity to share and discuss issues and feelings that have arisen through the cancer diagnosis and treatment. They provide support with all kinds of issues such as relationships and intimacy, changes in body image and the whole shock of a cancer diagnosis. There is evidence that being part of a support group has a positive impact on survival. The research team at the Breast Cancer Haven are about to start a study evaluating the psychological and physical effects of the Haven Programme including its cost-effectiveness as well as its impact on survival.
Other ongoing research projects include an evaluation of the effects on mood, qualify of life and well-being through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction programme. This study is being done in collaboration with the University of Southampton. Another project in the planning stages - in partnership with the University of Westminster - is looking at the effectiveness of herbs for hot flushes and other menopausal symptoms for women on Tamoxifen.
In fact, one of the strengths of the Haven is the way that it seems to manage to combine the gentler, nurturing complementary elements with rigorous research and information. In the chunky brochure sent to Visitors there is an impressive list of references for the subjects covered - from diet to the existence of energy systems.
Finally, preliminary findings from a study performed by Dr Marie Polley, University of Westminster, previously at Breast Cancer Haven, evaluating how the Haven Programme meets the needs of Visitors show positive results. Visitors listed and scored their two main concerns before and after their Haven programme and the results showed that the scores had improved to a "statistically significant level".
So if you can get yourself there, the Breast Cancer Haven is definitely worth a visit. You can even get a healthy lunch thrown in (provided in the caf four days a week by volunteers). And if all that isn´t enough to tempt you, there´s a Planet Organic just across the road so you can stock up on your organics while you are there!
The London Haven
020 7384 0000
The Hereford Haven
37 St Owen Street