Kath and Katya on support at Maggie's and from each other

Monday 08 November 2021

Maggie's Royal Free

In 2020, Katya's mum, Jackie, died of breast cancer. Within six months, Katya was diagnosed with breast cancer, and so was her mum’s best friend, Kath. They share how Maggie's has supported them across two centres and their motivation for raising £16,000.

Katya: Everyone who met Mum instantly loved her: she was loving, kind, generous to a fault, and utterly memorable.

When she first became ill, the outpouring of grief and support for her was embarrassing. It’s a testament to the way she lived her life. She was a good friend to many people.

Growing up, we were all very close family friends. Kath was a huge support all the way through my mum’s illness.

Kath: Jackie was my best friend for 25 years. We hit it off immediately as we were both born in South Africa.

We had three children of identical ages, which made it the perfect friendship. Katya is like a daughter to me.

Her stroke, and then her aggressive breast cancer shook the foundations of our families to the core.

But she was so caring and generous, I wanted to support her and her family in any way I could.

Our own diagnoses 

Kath: When Katya was diagnosed with breast cancer a month after her mother’s death, at such a young age, it was a huge shock. It was heart-breaking news after everything she had been through.

Katya: I knew it was cancer at some level, but the actual diagnosis sinking in was like an out-of-body experience, as if someone had given you the wrong baby at the hospital.

I thought, “It cannot possibly be me that we’re all talking about.”

Kath: Three months later, I received my own diagnosis. As a recently retired nurse, I stepped into a professional mode, asking every possible question like I would for my patients… until I realised it was me.

I had a lot of support from my family, but the biggest help was Katya. As soon as I told her, she sent me all the information she had gathered for her diagnosis.

Talking to someone who is going through the same awful experience is so powerful and a great motivation to finish your treatment.

Katya: I was frightened of being too sick to care for my two small children.

I never felt like I might not survive this. I knew that I would. But there was also the worry of something getting missed and having to keep going back for treatment endlessly.

Kath: My biggest fear was missing out on the lives of my seven young grandchildren. I had just retired, and planned to spend more time with them.

Managing treatment

Katya: The hardest part was actually having to be my own best expert. It is utterly exhausting sometimes.

Having to navigate the brutal treatment with contrasting views and opinions, without having someone ‘project manage’ my complete journey.

You are required to leave so much at the door of the medical appointments and aren’t really able to talk about it with the experts.

And then you have to become an expert really quickly in something to understand all the implications from all the angles, so that you can navigate the treatment as it fits your own views. 

It’s something you only really get to know as you navigate your way through. I’m a better statistician than I’ve ever been before.

Kath: I was a nurse, so navigating the treatment journey felt very familiar to me.

However, from a patient’s perspective, the information I was given felt quite overwhelming and difficult to digest. This is why Maggie's work in helping people understand their treatment path is so essential and valuable to patients.

My husband supported me wonderfully all the way through my treatments and drove me to every hospital appointment.

As weird as it sounds, during my last week of radiotherapy, I felt I needed my independence back and to be more in control of my routine.

I decided to cycle to my appointments every day, and on the way, I discovered this bright orange building on the grounds of the Charing Cross Hospital.

I had heard about Maggie's through Katy, so I decided to drop in.


Kath: The warm welcome, calm environment and kindness of Louise and the West London team gave me what I needed at that time (without me knowing it!):  a space to be, to go and cry if I needed to.

It was a home away from home.

The beautiful gardens at Maggie’s West London became a breathing space of reflection away from the busy hospital. I felt I could talk about my worries and be myself without worrying anyone and I felt listened to.

Katya: I was at a total crisis point when I first came in to Maggie's Royal Free – at the absolute lowest point of the whole journey.

I cried on Robyn’s shoulder, who I had already spoken to a lot on the phone.

It was such a relief to come into the building, knowing I could just drop in after my difficult appointment that day and put a face to a voice. I felt so welcome, supported and not alone.

Participating in the centre

Katya: I’ve taken part in the 'Where Now? Support beyond treatment' course, which I loved.

I do a weekly breathing class, which is something I look forward to and rely on in my weekly routine. Breathing exercises are new to my daily routine, but they’re here to stay! I also love the mindfulness classes.

I also went to see Jo, the psychologist at the Royal Free for one-to-one sessions every couple of weeks. These formed a really vital part in my recovery.

The fact that Jo has more than a toehold in the cancer world was essential, so I wasn’t just seeing any psychologist.

Those sessions felt relevant and really useful and gave me practical advice for my recovery.

At my last session at Maggie’s, I told Jo that it had been a privilege, and I really mean that. I always came out with my mind changed and soothed.

Kath: The most important things for me after my treatment was to keep my independence and be active again.

So, I took part in some of their exercise’s classes available within the West London programme like online Yoga and the Nordic Walking with the energetic and joyous Caroline.

I was really looking forward to my walk every week and it was also a great opportunity to meet others in similar situation too.

The social aspect of this activity was even more important after the lockdown, and once the restrictions eased, I needed time to feel like 'me' again and not just a 'patient'.

I also loved the virtual drop-in relaxation classes with Lorraine at the Royal Free.

It helped me to reflect on my diagnosis and made me make space in my mind to feel calm.

Reflections now

Katya: I’m not 'fixed', as that is a long work in progress, but I feel so well supported and less alone as the unexpected keeps on coming.

I have so many practical coping strategies now in my toolkit, some of which seem so utterly obvious, but somehow, I had never thought that way before.

I say this as someone who works in health and lifestyle publishing as a career – so I am already in this sort of world anyway, professionally!

It feels like my eyes have been opened and I am permanently changed for the better as a result.

Kath: Before coming through to Maggie’s I didn't know the support I needed.

Maggie's has been and is still my refuge, my piece of heaven when I need a space to breath, think about the future or when I am worried about my next scan or appointment.

I always feel welcome and heard when I drop in.

Being active again makes me feel more in control of my life and helps me to feel calm to cope with the unexpected.

I am eternally grateful for the support I received at Maggie's in the most difficult year of my life and during a world pandemic.

Katya: We wanted to raise money for Maggie’s West London and The Royal Free centre, so Kath and I decided to take the Thames Path for 95 km from Hampton Court past the Thames Barrier.

We invited friends and family along the way, to walk alongside us just as they’ve done throughout their treatment and recovery.

It went brilliantly, and we raised over £16,000 – more than we could have hoped for at the start.

There were 40 of us together at the end as well, and I’ll remember the sight of the finishing line as thrilling and uplifting.

Here with you

If you or someone you love has cancer, we are here with you.

Come and see us at your nearest Maggie’s, call us on 0300 123 180 or email us at enquiries@maggies.org.

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