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Cancer Relief marks 40 years with ‘a walk through our history’ exhibition

Cancer Relief CEO Grainne McKenna. Photo by Johnny Bugeja.

Cancer Relief aids 90% of all cancer deaths in Gibraltar, and this year the charity is marking its 40th anniversary with an exhibition.

For four decades the charity has aided the local community, cancer patients, survivors, and families in some of the most sensitive moments of their lives.

The team of 20 staff aid 35% of all deaths in Gibraltar, and last years assisted with 29 home deaths.

Cancer Relief sees between 500 to 600 people annually, with on average five referrals a week.

All this work will be remembered this week in an exhibition at the Gustavo Bacarisas Gallery in Casemates, which opens on Tuesday evening.

The Moorish Castle will also be lit up as from tonight until April 10.

For Cancer Relief CEO Grainne McKenna the charity has come a long way in 40 years, from starting off in 1983 in Transport House, when Lady Williams the wife of the then Governor, Admiral Sir David Williams, opened the charity.

The Centre started as a room with a chair and a kettle.

"Lady Williams had recognised there was a lack of cancer support at that time in Gibraltar," Mrs McKenna said.

She added the charity began it's work in palliative care, providing a place of sanctuary for people diagnosed with cancer.

"From small acorns we grow really big trees," she said.

The charity moved to it's current location in 2013 and that's when Mrs McKenna joined as the centre nurse.

"I came onboard when this building was still in the snagging phase," she said.

The building was donated by the Gibraltar Government and work began to providing a community based hospice.

The project was spearheaded by Chairwoman of Cancer Relief, Marisa Desoisa, and now 20 staff work for the charity in South Barracks.

"The old Lady Williams Centre in Devil's Tower Road wasn't fit for purpose anymore, unfortunately, and they were in talks for years before they could get this building," Mrs McKenna said.

After opening day centre services were relaunched as were holistic services, and in 2019 the hospice service was introduced.

"A lot of cancer now may be palliative, but you can live with it for a very long time, you can live with it for 10 years even so it's about managing palliative cancer," she said.

She added the hospice team aids those in the community in their family homes.

"I personally never thought I would end up in hospice care," she said.

Mrs McKenna began her career in the UK in acute care, but found herself applying to a job in Cancer Relief when she moved to Gibraltar.

"It is something I have never regretted, it is an absolute privilege to be involved with people in their most difficult time," she said.

"Death is a reality for all of us, facing our own mortality is challenging, its nothing we ever want to do but it is the reality for us all."

"For me, it's an absolute privilege to be able to be there for somebody in that time when they need it. I think anybody who ends up coming into palliative or hospice care, it's a calling."

"It's not a job, or an area of nursing and medicine that you come into without having that passion to do it."

"We are very lucky that we have an amazing small team and we all have the very same ethos and vision that the charity has about being there to listen to our community."

Taking care of people in their last moments of life can be challenging emotionally for nurses.

At Cancer Relief, they live by the ethos that in order to care for other they must care for themselves too.

"It's important I look after my staff and we look after each other," Mrs McKenna said.

"We have weekly team debriefs, we call them safety huddles where we get together and say are you doing ok?"

After the death of a patient, the team will reflect and balance end of life care between staff.

Staff also have onsite access to all the wellbeing services, such as massage, reflexology, counselling, yoga and mindfulness. 

"It's very important to look after yourself when you are doing this kind of role," she said.

She added nurses need to be well in order to look after patients and families.

The same level of care is given to carers and families of patients who can also reach out to the charity for help.

"Our patient will have one to one attention, the person with cancer will get that but so will the carer," she said.

"That's the ethos of hospice care, it's the whole unit, it's not just the person with cancer. It's your emotional health, spiritual wellbeing, financial and social it affects everything in your life and that's why its so important that that's supported."

For Mrs McKenna working in hospice care has meant she lives in the moment more and stresses less about the smaller issues in life.

She also makes sure to recognise small beautiful moments, find more joy in life and not to put off meeting loved ones.

"If an opportunity comes up to do something, do it," she said.

"Taking those moments are really important."

She talks about death more and encourages frank conversations with loved ones about their wishes.

"Breaking down those barriers and having honest conversations is really healthy," she said.

Over the years working in Cancer Relief, Mrs McKenna has seen medical advances, cure more people and extend the lives of many.

She highlighted the importance of screening, with the earlier cancer found the easier it is to treat.

Cancer Relief held around 8,000 in person and phone consultations in 2021, aiding those with cancer and their concerns about Covid-19.

The charity needs around £400,000 a year to continue it's centre services, with the Government grant covering the hospice service.

"Fundraising is a massive part of what we do," Mrs McKenna said.

Cost of living rise has affected the charity and their corporate sponsorship, as did the Covid-19 pandemic with the charity's public fundraising events paused for two years.

Ms McKenna thanked the Peter J Isola Foundation for their fundraising drives during this period.

"It is always a challenge, we are always trying to come up with creative ideas for fundraising," Ms McKenna said.

The exhibition is open to the public from Tuesday, April 4 to Friday, April 14 at the Gustavo Bacarisas Gallery in Casemates.

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