How Cancerkin's founder discovered her mission

SOMETIMES when you look back on your life, you see how a single moment dictated the course of events forever after

SOMETIMES when you look back on your life, you see how a single moment dictated the course of events forever after.

For Gloria Freilich, a single moment changed the lives of tens of thousands of other people too.

In 1983, at the age of 44, she had a cancer scare and attended the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead for treatment. There she received care from surgeon Santy Parbhoo, who had just set up a breast cancer appeal but was struggling to get it off the ground.

Ms Freilich had lost her mother, her maternal aunt and a young cousin to breast cancer and had resigned herself to the same fate.

"My children were in their GCSE year at the time. I remember being very scared," she recalls.

Thankfully, she pulled through and her tumour turned out to be benign. It was then, experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude at being granted a second chance at life, that she decided to become involved in the fight against breast cancer and teamed up with Mr Parbhoo to raise funds and provide more services.

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"There was no chemotherapy back then and breast conserving surgery was in its early days, so a mastectomy was the normal treatment," she said.

"There was very little emotional or practical support for patients and their families.

"After my scare, a friend of mine sent me an article from the Los Angeles Times about an organisation called the Wellness Centre, which was a wonderful little house in Santa Monica which provided comprehensive cancer support services.

"I went out to visit to see the whole programme and brought it home to discuss with Mr Parbhoo. At this stage there was nowhere in the UK doing this sort of thing. It was very pioneering."

Ms Freilich gave up her job with a mental health charity to concentrate on learning about breast cancer and the possible services which could be provided for sufferers.

"By 1987 I was ready," she said. "I had attended medical lectures and read reams on the subject. But what really got us going was an extremely generous donation from a Hampstead businessman who had lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 12.

"He promised us £50,000 and we went out to lunch to talk about it. But by the end of the lunch, he had decided to give us £100,000. Now we had enough to make a go of it."

In January 1987, exactly 21 years and a month ago, Ms Freilich co-founded Cancerkin.

Based in a few small rooms at the Royal Free, the charity recruited "volunteer visitors" - recovered patients trained to give post-operative care - to go out to families' homes.

A clinic was also set up to help treat the symptoms of lymphoedema - another painful condition which can arise after surgery or radiotherapy.

Ms Freilich organised research trips to places including Germany, France and Israel to study the best methods of treatment which were brought back to Hampstead for Cancerkin's groundbreaking new facility.

"I remember being inundated with requests for treatment from people all over the country," she said.

"They would put themselves up in London just so they could visit the clinic. It was heartbreaking because we could only scratch the surface of the need in those days.

"It still sends a tingle down my spine when I think of the desperate letters we were getting."

With demand ever increasing on the charity's resources, a £1million capital appeal was launched in 1991 to find purpose-built accommodation for the centre. After three years of fundraising, that massive target was reached and Cancerkin was able to build a new facility adjoining the Royal Free which was officially unveiled by Lady Mountbatten.

The new home meant a vast range of other services could be provided including a telephone advice line, art therapy, creative writing, yoga, theatre groups and the Look Good Feel Better programme.

Major cosmetics companies rallied around Cancerkin for this scheme, which involved women attending workshops with beauticians to mask the effects of chemotherapy.

"People would come in looking frightened, sallow and pale," said Ms Freilich. "But they would go out smiling, clutching a bundle of lotions and potions. It was a wonderfully uplifting service.

"There was so much going on by now. It was so exciting to see what we could do to help."

Since then, even more strides have been made to make the Cancerkin clinic in Hampstead a world leader. Another £1million appeal is underway to develop intra-operative techniques which will reduce both the physical and emotional effects on those who develop breast cancer and need tumours removed. If the target is reached, Cancerkin will be able to bring one of the cutting-edge operating machines to the Royal Free to save more lives.

Some 3,000 patients were helped by the charity last year, and more than 50,000 have benefited from Cancerkin's care since its inception 21 years ago. Now, Ms Freilich is retiring to spend more time at home in Highgate.

"Some days, inevitably, have been emotionally exhausting. You can never tell what any day will bring," said the grandmother-of-two. "Someone will walk through the door and immediately you are thrust into their personal situation.

"But that has been the stimulus to go on working. And I feel extremely fortunate to have had that opportunity, given the history of breast cancer in my own family.

"I am so grateful for the excellence of the training I was given and the generosity of so many people.

"We are really embarrassed by riches. Our donors over the years have been so generous and confident in what we have set out to do.

"It has been a privilege to have a window into people's lives when they are in crisis. I feel completely and utterly fulfilled with what has happened with Cancerkin."

To contribute to the charity's £1million appeal, visit