As the total raised by last year’s Maggie’s Penguin Parade is revealed today – a staggering £552,000, which is enough to keep the Dundee centre running for a year – Gayle Ritchie meets a centre user with a brain tumour who stresses the importance of keeping the facility running…
When asked what the Maggie’s centre in Dundee means to him, Michael Darhill doesn’t hesitate.
“This place is absolutely essential,” he beams. “It’s a joyful building which saved me from myself.
“Once you make the decision to come in, you’re literally scooped up and taken care of in a soft, gentle way.
“You’re offered cups of tea, biscuits and cakes and nobody looks at you with pity.
“Maggie’s is a place for living and learning how to enjoy yourself after all the turmoil.”
Michael, 66, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in November 2016 after having a seizure.
Doctors reckoned the tumour had been growing slowly for up to a decade.
“I felt depressed, lethargic and just not myself,” he recalls.
“I had stabbing earache which would come and go, my balance was off and when I fell over or dragged curtains off rails, I was accused of being drunk. But there was nothing really to indicate it was a brain tumour.
“I consider myself very fortunate it was caught at that stage, as there were signs it was mutating from benign to possibly malign.”
Following months of gruelling radiotherapy and chemotherapy, Michael was given the good news that treatment had been successful.
“The tumour is still there but it’s not progressing. I think 95% of it was removed and the rest has been zapped by chemo and radiotherapy.
“Tumours do have a propensity to come back though, but I certainly feel much better.”
While Michael was in hospital, he spent hours gazing down at the Maggie’s building from his ward.
His initial feelings towards the place, however, were far from positive.
“I just thought, ‘that’s where I’m going to end up’,” he reflects.
“I’d built up a big barrier and had a negative view of it. I really didn’t want to go in but as soon as I walked through the door, I realised it was a wonderful place. I’m part of the furnishings now.”
What is it about the centre that Michael, a retired cabin crew member and trainer with British Airways, finds so helpful?
“Just being here, sitting, or having a cup of tea is enough,” he says.
“There’s something about the atmosphere; it’s very peaceful and gentle.
“For someone living with cancer, or a brain tumour, it’s a place where nobody treats you like a victim.
“We all hate words like ‘victim’, ‘suffering’ and ‘battling’! The medical staff are doing the battling; we’re sitting hoping for the best!”
Another aspect of Maggie’s that appeals to Michael, who lives near Auchterarder with his partner, is the fact people can “look well”.
“It’s not until the final moments that you look like a prune!” he jokes.
Michael is also a big fan of mindfulness courses run at Maggie’s.
“They help you to realise that all thoughts of your demise are just that – thoughts,” he says.
“You train yourself to realise thoughts are thoughts and you don’t need to keep hold of them.
“I’m so much more positive now and that’s thanks to Maggie’s, which is all about living, not dying. It’s about being here and enjoying yourself; it’s about getting your life back.”
Before his diagnosis and subsequent treatment, Michael was very fit and active.
However, his energy levels nose-dived and he found himself unable to take part in hobbies he loved like gardening and walking.
“I’m hoping now that medication has changed, I’ll be able to get my fitness back,” he says.
“I’m not allowed to drive yet. I can reapply but I don’t feel mentally ready.
“There are walking and gardening groups at Maggie’s and I want to join them soon.”
While Michael embraces the £552,000 raised by the Penguin Parade, he describes the cash as a “drop in the ocean”.
“That’s a fantastic effort and sounds a lot but it only keeps Maggie’s going for a year,” he says.
“We can’t rest on our laurels; we need to keep fundraising because we can’t afford for the support to end.
“I’m baking on April 19 for friends and family and all proceeds will go to Maggie’s. The centre more than deserves it.
“Ultimately, I see things like this – I’m a positive, outgoing and upbeat person but treatment left me feeling flat. The idea of survival was harder than dying, but Maggie’s gave me my spark back.”
Annie Long, fundraising manager for Maggie’s Dundee, says the £552,000 made from the Penguin Parade more than paid for the centre to run in 2018.
“Our dream was to raise £540,000 – what it costs to run the centre for a year,” she says.
“To make more is wonderful. It’s great 2018 has been paid for, but there are many things people can do to help in 2019, from taking part in coffee mornings and our Culture Crawl – a 10km night walk exploring Dundee’s best culture – on August 30.”
Annie hopes to encourage everyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis to use the facilities offered by Maggie’s, whether they are the person with cancer themselves, or someone close.
She adds: “We’re delighted Michael has shared his experience of Maggie’s which demonstrates the importance of our mindfulness groups and of course our mens’ groups.”
For details of the full programme, see: www.maggiescentres.org/our-centres/maggies-dundee/whats-on/
Penguin fever swept the nation when the Maggie’s Penguin Parade launched in June last year.
The project – which aimed to raise vital funds for Maggie’s Dundee – challenged families to find 80 giant penguin sculptures dotted throughout Tayside and Fife.
From golfers to comic book characters, each flamboyant five-foot avian attraction showcased a one-off design.
While fantastic fun, the trail also helped introduce conversations about cancer and raised awareness of Maggie’s.
The penguins eventually went under the hammer at V&A Dundee in September, netting a staggering £540,000 for the cancer care charity – the cost of running a Maggie’s centre for a year.
A total of 80 full-size penguins were sold, with buyers including Judy Murray, who splashed out £10,000 for a bird inspired by her athlete son Sir Andy.
Two extra-special “baby” penguins were also up for grabs.
The overall £552,000 raised allowed 13,500 people to be helped by Maggie’s Dundee in 2018.