In 1969 people wouldn’t even use the word ‘cancer’: NI’s longest running cancer charity turns 50

One of the Ulster Cancer Foundation's earliest mobile cancer information units
One of the Ulster Cancer Foundation's earliest mobile cancer information units

GRAEME COUSINS talks to some of the key individuals involved in the journey of the Ulster Cancer Foundation, latterly Cancer Focus NI, over the past 50 years

In 1969, Cancer Focus NI – formerly Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) – was the first ever cancer charity to set up in the Province.

The UCF Research Laboratory was established at Queen's University in 1997

The UCF Research Laboratory was established at Queen's University in 1997

From day one its aim was to raise money to be spent solely in Northern Ireland on cancer research, education and support services.

It all started 50 years ago when NI businessman Peter Brand, while being treated for cancer, became aware of specialists’ concerns at the lack of local research and took action.

Mr Brand, who was awarded an OBE for his work with UCF, passed away several years ago.

Of Mr Brand’s legacy, current chief executive Roisin Foster, said: “After recovering from cancer Peter helped to set up this charity.

Cancer Focus NI's three chief executives Roisin Foster (2010-present), Michael Wood (1971-2000) and Arlene Spiers (2000-2010)

Cancer Focus NI's three chief executives Roisin Foster (2010-present), Michael Wood (1971-2000) and Arlene Spiers (2000-2010)

“It’s tremendous that his legacy lives on 50 years later. When we rebranded in 2012 he came to that and was still very active and supportive.”

Roisin, who has been at the helm since 2010, said: “The whole thrust in 1969 was about funding research but they realised very quickly that there needed to be public education about the whole area of cancer and obviously there are people living with the disease who needed support.

“Those are the areas of work that we’ve been doing ever since plus the political lobbying and campaigning.”

Explaining why the charity changed its name in 2012, she said: “We were Ulster Cancer Foundation. Our look and feel had got very dated. Foundations are thought of as people who give out money.

Ulster Rugby star Rory Best and Olympic boxer Paddy Barnes celebrating with Paul McConville and Jake McGarrigle from Round Tower Integrated Primary School, who are part of the winning key stage one class to be crowned inaugural Fit Factor Champions 2009, an Ulster Cancer Foundation initiative. Photography by Kelvin Boyes

Ulster Rugby star Rory Best and Olympic boxer Paddy Barnes celebrating with Paul McConville and Jake McGarrigle from Round Tower Integrated Primary School, who are part of the winning key stage one class to be crowned inaugural Fit Factor Champions 2009, an Ulster Cancer Foundation initiative. Photography by Kelvin Boyes

“Also the name put us at the end of every alphabetic list. We wanted the ‘Cancer’ to be more prominent in our name so people could find us.”

Roisin admitted that having more than a dozen cancer charities in Northern Ireland was not ideal.

She said: “I think probably we could rationalise but getting there would take up an awful lot of time and I can’t see that happening.

“We were the first but there have been quite a few since. We all tend to have our niche, for example the Cancer Fund For Children care for children with cancer, the Hospice does palliative care, Action Cancer will do breast screening.

A bra and swimwear fitting service was established in 1993

A bra and swimwear fitting service was established in 1993

“Because it is so complex there are cracks in the system. Provision can be patchy. Not everyone finds the service they need and there are waiting lists for services.

“To an extent the large number of cancer charities is to do with the governance of Northern Ireland.

“We’re part of the UK and the big UK charities will want to have a presence in Northern Ireland.

“If you look at Denmark, there is only one cancer charity and that works very well.”

It is often said that everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer.

Of her own family’s heartache, Roisin said: “I lost a wee niece to cancer, my brother’s only daughter in her teens.

“It changed the shape of our family forever. It does leave a footprint.”

She added: “About two years ago we hit a very important tipping point, that more people survive cancer than die.

“One of the problems is that people take that fatalistic view that they may have symptoms of cancer and they won’t go to the doctor because they’re afraid.

“We want them to go to the doctor as soon as possible so it can be treated early.

“We still do lose far too many people.”

Cancer Focus NI employs 103 staff, around half on a full time basis.

They also have over 500 volunteers, over 300 of whom would be classed as ‘regular volunteers’.

“When we count up the number of hours they volunteer it’s the equivalent of another 17 full time staff members,” said Roisin.

“If you haven’t got the passion for supporting people in need you couldn’t do the job.

“You become attached to people and it is very painful if the person passes away.

“My job is to ensure there is money for our councillors to do their job to the required standard and that we have support for our councillors as well, for their mental and emotional wellbeing.”

She said: “We’ve only had three chief executives in 50 years. I think that says a lot about the loyalty and the passion.”

The first chief executive of the Ulster Cancer Foundation spent night after night at the height of the Troubles driving around the Province trying to establish fundraising groups for the charity.

Under Michael Wood’s leadership the charity grew from a turnover of £20,000 in 1971 to in £2,338,486 in 2000.

Michael said: “I was great friends with Peter (Brand – the businessman who founded the charity). We worked really well together.

“We used to go out two or three times a week at night – this was in the seventies remember – far from pleasant to drive around, but we went all over the Province to set up public meetings, what we called Combat Cancer groups.”

The 84-year-old commented: “When we started I remember very clearly that people wouldn’t even use the word cancer. It was ‘the big C’ which was always whispered. That was one of the problems we faced.

“We had two major objectives at the beginning.

“One was to raise money for cancer research that could be carried out here in Northern Ireland.

“The doctors who were involved with us wanted to see local research. At that time all the money raised in Northern Ireland was going over to London.

“We are very proud that we were able to fund the department of oncology at Queen’s, and we have funded research there and in the University of Ulster ever since.

“The second objective was to try to change public attitudes by education and information.

“People needed to know that by getting an early diagnosis they stood a good chance of being cured, even then. At least a third of cases who were dying in the early seventies could have been saved if they’d been diagnosed at an early stage, but they just wouldn’t go, they didn’t want to know about it.”

He said: “We did a tremendous amount to support people who were trying to stop smoking and educate the public, particularly young people so they didn’t start smoking.

“This was before nicorette, chewing gum, patches. One of the other things we did was lobby to get legislation on smoking issues, like getting it banned in public places.”

Of his 30 years with UCF/Cancer Focus NI Michael said: “I made so many friends with so many people from all over the Province, from so many different backgrounds, all wanting to work together because it was cancer they were fighting.”

Rathfriland woman Noreen Smith who has been fundraising for Cancer Focus NI for more than 40 years said that generating cash for the organisation was far from being a chore.

She said: “You have to put a lot of effort in but it is not an onerous task.

“It’s not a chore. We have great fun fundraising. The reward is more than worthwhile.”

Noreen said: “Our first meeting was on April 10, 1972. A public meeting was called for what was then known as a Combat Cancer group, under the umbrella of the Ulster Cancer Foundation.

“A friend of mine and I went along because we thought it was a worthwhile cause.

“I was a physiotherapist and I was interested in the health aspect.”

She said: “A number of the people who were at that meeting are still involved in the group.

“When we started out we did things like variety sales and barbecues. Our sponsored walk has been on the go for a very long time, it started off around the town, but the year of foot and mouth we had to move to Castlewellan Park and it’s stayed there ever since. It’s been a huge success.

“In about the last six or seven years we’ve had an influx of young people – they’ve organised a mad hatter’s tea party, afternoon teas, a fashion show, hot drinks at the switching on of the Christmas lights. It’s nice to see people coming in who are going to carry it on.”

Noreen continued: “My opinion is research is absolutely essential. All of the money raised in Northern Ireland is put towards research in Northern Ireland which I think is a great thing.

“At every AGM somebody comes down from Cancer Focus and tells us how the money we’ve raised has been used. That’s very important I feel.

“We have a very cohesive group. Everybody works well together and plays their part.

“We’ve got great support right across the community.

“Over time (46 years) we’ve raised in excess of half a million. It all adds up.”

She said: “I’m very proud to be a part of this group. We’re always developing, improving, adding new members and fundraising ideas.”

To mark its 50th birthday Cancer Focus Northern Ireland has launched a major fundraising campaign to raise £100,000 for pioneering breast cancer research.

The charity is asking everyone – whatever their age – instead of gifts on their birthday to request donations to the charity’s research campaign.