40 year old Heather Walters of Barnstaple celebrated her birthday and breathed a sigh of relief when she walked into the Over and Above Fern Cancer and Wellbeing Centre last week.
Heather campaigning for a support centre at the very start. She with a group of five other breast care patients met with Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust in 2016 to find out how patients could be offered a facility similar to the Force Cancer Support Centre in Exeter. Force in Exeter was too far for them to travel for “drop in” support, particularly when they felt so unwell. They wanted a centre that they could access locally.
She was thrilled when the hospital charity Over and Above launched an appeal in August 2017 and the building works started in April 2019 to support people living with and beyond cancer and their families with an attached overnight accommodation wing to support families.
“I was 34 years old, happily married with two small children when I was diagnosed with a HER2+ breast cancer. My world instantly turned upside down and inside out. I remember coming out of the hospital in silence with my husband, Tristan after being told the words no one wants to hear. We had got into the car and Tristan turned and looked at me saying “how are we going to explain to the children why you have no hair? We both broke down.
I knew I wanted an easy way to keep friends and family in the loop with how my treatment was going so I set up a Facebook page, ‘Check Yourself, Don’t Wreck Yourself’. I never in my wildest dreams expected it to be shared as much as it did and very quickly it turned into a blog that was being read from all corners of the world. It was a lifeline for me, apart from my family it gave me a purpose to get up every day, and even if it helped one other person it made it worthwhile.
I wrote on the blog daily, and I felt it was important for it to be honest and real, showing that people of any age can get cancer. The support I received from people of North Devon was phenomenal and before long we were creating crazy ways to raise awareness and money. Mum and Dad’s shop, Youings had scaffolding up for building repairs and we decided to cover it with donated bras, over 1000 of them. It was certainly eye catching and very satisfying seeing tourists taking a picture of it.
I was then invited by The North Devon Journal to write my very own column, again sharing my cancer journey, which I found so therapeutic and developed a real love of writing. Astonishingly, I was later nominated for Columnist of the Year for the South West.
The campaign was growing and growing, after having a conversation with my sisters we decided that the blog needed a song and with that a flash mob! A friend re wrote the Taylor Swift song, ‘Shake it off’ to ‘Check yourself’ lyrics and during my fifth round of chemotherapy we performed it down Barnstaple High Street. This was amazing, and I never would have believed the response on social media. It went viral and has now been mimicked in 5 different countries around the world, something I am incredibly proud of.
I finished treatment, chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, and Herceptin in 2015 and wanted to organise something ‘big’ to raise some more money for charity. We decided to have an evening dinner, dance and auction, where we would get celebrities to sign bras or pants and WOW the public rallied behind me and it was amazing who knew who in the celebrity world, we ended up with about 50! The highlight pieces were signed by Ed Sheeran, Kelly Brook and Manchester United. I truly was hoping for about £20-£50 for each pair and when the first auction started the first up was Ian Wright’s, I was blown away when the hammer went for £80. This set the tone and the fun began. We made nearly £20,000 that night for Coppafeel. I was so surprised and utterly grateful.
I was very aware of the lack of services available to me at the time and more importantly in the aftermath post treatment. I relied on the wonderful staff in the Chemo Unit for advice and support. When I reached rock bottom, it took my mum weeks to find a counsellor for me which we had to pay for, and this ignited a spark in my belly. I had met some inspirational friends in the cancer world along the way and we created a patient group to start the process and raise awareness for the need of a Cancer Support Centre here in North Devon similar to the Force Centre in Exeter, which we had all accessed and valued through our treatment
In 2016, Tristan wanted a piece of the action and bribed a team consisting of family members, including my dad, and friends to climb Mount Meru in Tanzania to raise money for the centre. It was a huge achievement, one that I think non-of them would do again but provided life-long memories, unity, and pride. All wearing ‘Check Yourself’ t-shirts throughout, never missing an opportunity to raise some awareness of cancer across the world, Julie Whitton would have been proud, and they raised thousands.
Meanwhile, we were of grafting, writing business plans and increasing the awareness of the ‘need’. We realised for our dream to become a reality it had to be at the hospital and fast forward four years to now! Amazing!!! Although sadly only a few of the original ‘gang’ are involved in the Patient Voice but we have formed a wonderful alliance with the NHS staff and the NHS Over and Above hospital charity, who I genuinely call my friends. As with anything that is created on this scale, it hasn’t come without some frustrations but as a united team we have all been singing from the same hymn sheet to create The Fern Centre with patients always at the forefront of our mind. We hope the centre, will provide the deserved resources and services to support patients and their families in any way they need. It is super exciting, and I have been extremely proud to have been a part of it.”
Heather is a trained complementary therapist at Ocean Beauty at Barnstaple and has recently focussed her fundraising towards the massage couches, complementary therapy and equipment for the serenity garden. She and her family and friends have raised an incredible £9,027 and she was delighted to show her family “bubble” around the Centre last week.
To find out more about the Fern Cancer and Wellbeing Centre visit https://overandabove.org.uk/fern-centre/ or contact the Centre Manager Tasmin Andrew on 01271 311855.
So far, thanks to the amazing support from the people of North Devon the hospital charity Over and Above has raised £1.3 million towards the Cancer and Wellbeing Centre’s £1.5million target. If you would like to give your support to the hospital charity Over and Above, or want to find out more, please visit; www.overandabove.org.uk and the charity’s Facebook page or contact the North Devon District Hospital Fundraising Team on 01271 311772 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs: Fern Cancer and Wellbeing Manager Tasmin Andrew and Heather Walters
For more information about this press release, call the Fundraising Team in the fundraising office on 01271 311772 or e-mail email@example.com