Three decades dedicated to young cancer patients
ALL too often it is only when we are directly affected by a serious illness that we dig deep into our pockets to support the good causes working tirelessly behind the scenes to help.
Thankfully the vast majority of us will never be affected by childhood cancer. But for those 12 or so children newly diagnosed in the Plymouth area every year, and their devastated families, the need for support can never be underestimated.
Graham Parkinson , from Gunnislake, is among of a team of volunteers who have dedicated much of their lives to helping to raise funds for children with cancer and their families in and around Plymouth.
Graham, 62, has not been directly affected by childhood cancer. But when his wife, Sonia, went to work in children's medical outpatients at Plymouth's former Freedom Fields Hospital in the early 1980s, the couple saw first-hand the impact cancer has on children and their families.
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Graham, who was a biomedical scientist in microbiology at the city's old Greenbank Hospital at the time, said: "Because of Sonia's involvement we became aware of children with cancer. Most people do not associate cancer with children. We became more aware of the issues that face families and just how profound it is to have a child with cancer.
"We wanted to help."
For the past 30 years, Graham and Sonia, now a medical secretary for Derriford Hospital consultant paediatrician Dr Paul Ward, have been part of a group of volunteers who have raised nearly £2million to support children with cancer and their families in the Plymouth area.
In 2003 they joined the fundraising team of Derriford Children's Cancer Service (DCCS), a charity set up to enhance the care, support and facilities provided for children undergoing treatment for cancer, and their families, above and beyond what is available on the NHS or from other charities.
All of the money it raises is spent locally to provide support and equipment which helps families to live as normal a life as possible and cope with the emotional toll that a childhood cancer diagnosis brings.
Graham leads a group of seven volunteers for the charity, which raises between £30,000 and £40,000 every year. The paediatric oncology team at Derriford Hospital , led by Dr Ward, then decides how the money is spent to benefit children and their families.
"The remit for how the money is spent is very broad," Graham explained," it depends on the needs of the families.
"It doesn't have to be a huge amount of money spent to help a family but we get feedback to say it has really made a difference.
"We had a bowling evening a few years ago which cost just £75 to provide some food for but the benefits to the families were incredible, with bonds built up between families of children who were newly diagnosed and those whose children had been on treatment for some time."
Graham regularly goes out into the community to talk about the work of the charity, helping to raise its profile and attract supporters, who include schools, Rotary Clubs and Women's Institutes.
"It is about developing relationships with our donors, helping to keep their interest and showing them that they are supporting something really worthwhile," said Graham, who also does the charity's administration.
The money these supporters raise is then added to around £5,000 accumulated from street collections to achieve the overall amount raised every year by the charity.
This pot is used to respond to the needs of children with cancer, which are often immediate, with help sometimes given on the same day that it is requested.
Among the many things the charity has funded are wigs and hair pieces for girls who have temporarily lost their hair through cancer treatment, pain relief devices, equipment which can benefit a child's care both in and outside of the hospital, patient transport to specialist hospitals, social activities, days out and breaks for families.
The charity funds a clinical psychologist who provides psychological support to children and their families, supporting them with the emotional impact of childhood cancer.
A Parents' Support Group hosts social events where families can meet and develop supportive relationships. There is a Siblings' Support Group for the brothers and sisters of children with cancer and a Teenagers' Support Group which funds activities for teenagers affected by cancer.
The charity also pays for Derriford's oncology outreach nurses and ward nurses to attend specialist oncology courses, keeping them up to date with advances in care and treatment.
Graham said: "The money being raised locally is being spent locally to help the families.
"As a volunteer, once you realise the benefits to the children and their families it is extremely rewarding. It is rewarding to know that you are making a real difference. "
Prior to joining DCCS, Graham, Sonia and the fundraising team were volunteers for a local support group of the children's cancer charity CLIC, with Graham going on to become chair of the group and later working as a full-time area coordinator.
After becoming volunteers for DCCS, Graham spent six years employed as a part-time fundraiser for paediatrics at Derriford Hospital , which included DCCS.
Now retired, Graham continues to devote his time to the charity. But with 30 years of fundraising behind him, he is contemplating whether the time is right to call it a day.
However with children's cancer services being a part of his life for so long can Graham really make the break?
"I am considering stepping back, I'd like to pull back from leading the group," he said. "I have been doing it for 30 years and I think there comes a time when there are other interests that you want to pursue. Thirty years is a long time and it has literally taken over our lives for a lot of that time.
"I will probably still be involved on the periphery. We are looking for new people to join as volunteers and revitalise the group."
Graham added: "A father (whose child had cancer) once said to me, 'no one will ever know what we are going through unless you have experienced it.'
"You can sympathise with a family's situation but unless you are in that situation you really don't know. Ultimately the money raised has made a huge difference to the children and their families in so many ways. "
Thanking all the volunteers who have been part of the local fundraising group over the last 30 years, Graham said: "They have all been a tremendous team to work alongside – I'm really grateful.
"Without them we would not have been able to achieve such wonderful results and provide all the extra facilities for the children and their families.
"As a team we would also like to sincerely thank all those people in the area who have supported the children's oncology service in Plymouth with such kind and generous donations. Thank you."
To find out more about DCCS contact Graham on 01822 832820.