The History of Chai Cancer Care

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Written by Chai's Co Founder Susan Shipman in 2010 for Chai's annual 'together' magazine.

Susan Shipman reflects back over the past 20 years....

"It’s hard to believe that it is twenty one years ago since I received the phone call from Frances Winegarten z’l that was to be the beginning of the cancer support organisation that is known today as Chai Lifeline Cancer Care.

Frances at this time was in remission from two bouts of a rare type of cancer that had been very difficult to treat.  She had endured high doses of radiotherapy and chemotherapy that was experimental to her problem, as there were no known proven drugs to treat her particular form of cancer.

Frances was a lady blessed with a strong character and positive attitude; she was determined to survive and so, in addition to the conventional treatments prescribed by her physicians, she took her health into her own hands by changing her diet and her lifestyle. Hearing of her recovery, many cancer patients in her community sought Frances’s advice on diet and benefitted from her empathetic support.

In contrast, I was the mother of a child who had been diagnosed with cancer when she was two years old. At this time Natalie z’l was six and a half and had had in the four years since diagnosis, three separate rare forms of cancer. She had survived three major operations and meningitis and endured gruelling radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

At that time I was in the process of starting a support group at Great Ormond Street Hospital for the parents of children with cancer. On my many visits with Natalie over the years, I had been touched by the number of parents in the Oncology Department who were unable to cope emotionally.

It was fortuitous that Lady Amelie Jacobovits z’l was visiting Frances when she received acall from a friend of mine. Through this friend I had heard of the work Frances was doing with cancer patients. I had asked her to tell Frances that if ever she needed any help with children who had cancer she should call me. On hearing my name, Amelie who had been a close friend since 1986 when we had first met in GOSH when Natalie had her second operation, insisted that Frances meet me and the rest is history! 

We first met in Frances’s flat on a very hot evening in June 1989.  Despite the difference    in our ages it was a meeting of two kindred spirits who had both been touched, albeit differently, by a terrible disease and who had recognised the importance of emotional support in the healing process. At this time the treatment for cancer was to cut it out, burn it, or poison it – the emotional effects of being diagnosed with a life threatening illness for both the patient and their family were not considered.

That night Frances convinced me of the importance of starting a support group for Jewish cancer patients. She had felt completely isolated when attending a non- Jewish support group when she was ill, due to the many and diverse cultural difference between Jews and non- Jews. It is also well documented that in moments of crisis, regardless of levels of obervance, people have a need to go back to their roots where they feel comfortable and secure. And so, our intention that night was to start a telephone support helpline. Neither of us could have imagined then that twenty years later, that helpline would have become one of the foremost Cancer Support Organisations in the United Kingdom.

By December of 1989 we had formed a committee and in March 1990, Chai Lifeline was granted charitable status and Frances and I were able to set up a telephone helpline that was run from both our homes.

The first thing we did was to write a letter to the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Tribune to advise the community of the service we were offering – but no one called!  It wasn’t until May that year, when one of the members of the original committee managed to get the JC to print an article about us, that the phone started to ring - not with clients seeking support, but from recovered cancer patients and their family members, volunteering to help.

Sadly, the same weekend that we were interviewed by the J.C., Natalie relapsed and we were told by Great Ormond Street that although they couldn’t identify the problem, she probably only had three months to live. I vividly remember sitting in my garden the following week with Frances and her daughter Louise Hager, discussing Chai Lifeline’s future and why people were not phoning for help and what we could do about it.

At that time cancer was a taboo subject that was never discussed. Indeed the word cancer was rarely uttered in the Jewish community to describe the disease; instead expressions like “the big C”, “the illness”, “you know what” or “the machala” were used.  We realised that if we were to be able to help the community’s cancer patients, we first had to take away their fear of cancer.

In 1990 there was very little information about cancer available to the general public. The subject was rarely in the media and there was no internet. Frances and I decided that the best way to take away the fear was through education and so we decided to hold a public lecture.

At that time the charity had no money, and so my husband Philip z’l and I, together with Frances and her husband Aaron z’l, jointly gave £1000 pounds to pay for the advertisements for the lecture and hire of the hall – it was the best £500 pound we ever invested!

We held our first public lecture on 11th September 1990 in Norrice Lea Synagogue Hall.  It was the first time that a lecture about cancer was to be given by eminent cancer specialists to a lay audience and Frances and I were petrified that nobody would turn up.  The hall had room for 400 chairs theatre style and we didn’t want it to look empty.  We were very tempted to hire “rent a crowd” but instead decided to put out 200 chairs with a further 200 stacked at the back just in case.  To our amazement, 400 people crowded into the hall that night and a further 100 were turned away at the door!

The lecture was a huge success and the feedback was very positive. At last we started to get phone calls from people wanting help as well as from those wanting to volunteer.

That same week Natalie, who seemed to have recovered from her relapse in May, was diagnosed with the return of her brain tumour. Great Ormond Street’s prediction in May was sadly correct and Natalie lost her brave fight against cancer in October 1990, one month before her eighth birthday.

I was bereft, but at the same time determined that Natalie’s short life was not to have been in vain. It was her wish during the last few months of her life to help me and “Aunty” Frances with Chai Lifeline when she got older – instead she has been the inspiration behind Chai for the past twenty years.

We decided to organise three Natalie Shipman Memorial Lectures for the following year to be held in January, February and March.  We booked the hall, arranged advertisements for the media and designed flyers to be circulated through kosher shops, Shuls etc.  The problem was that we had no money to pay for it all! Lady J, who had continued to be of tremendous help and encouragement to Frances and I since being our ‘Shadchan’, was adamant that we couldn’t turn to the Community for financial help. This was because the first Gulf War had just begun and all available money was needed for Israel. Fortunately we were given the All Aboard Shop in Golders Green for two weeks to raise money. With the help of a fantastic team of volunteers, who managed to fill the shop with very saleable goods for us to sell, we raised over £2500 pounds, a staggering amount at that time for a charity shop!

From then onwards we never looked back.  We have always felt the Alm-ghty’s guiding hand and in response to the ever -growing need Chai Lifeline grew at an amazing pace. For many years after, however we continued to get criticism as to why, when cancer knows no boundaries, was there the need for a Jewish cancer support group. Amazingly this criticism came from the Jewish, not the wider community.  The non- Jewish Community gave us their whole hearted support and other minority groups came to us for advice as to how to start cancer support groups in their own communities.

It wasn’t long before we needed to have a proper base and so in 1992 we opened our first office in Heather House in Golders Green. We had for some time been providing trained volunteers who all of whom had experienced cancer - either themselves or through a family member - as befrienders to support our clients. Now that we had an office, we were able to man the helpline with trained volunteers as well.

In July 1993 we held a Breast Cancer Awareness lecture in Stamford Hill aimed at providing the religious community in that area with vital information about breast cancer. Over 800 women attended and afterwards, through feedback from breast cancer specialists, we discovered that at least 5 women who had attended the lecture had found lumps and sought medical help.

The impact of this lecture was amazing.  Eminent cancer specialists started to approach us asking to speak at our lectures! We continued to gain credibility in the medical profession and soon had an impressive list of Medical Patrons. We formed our Medical Advisory Panel, which meets regularly at Chai and continues to support and advise us to this day.

Despite our continuing growth we were getting very few calls to the helpline. In fact most of the calls for help were being made to the office number.  We reached the conclusion that people found it hard to ask for help especially over the telephone and needed another way to access our services.  We decided the answer was to open a Cancer Support Centre, a physical place where people could just drop in, a place where we could offer a variety of additional services.

In 1994 thanks to the invaluable help of our Trustee Ernest Weinstein z’l, who found the premises and supervised the construction, we opened the Chai Lifeline Centre for Health in Sheild House, later to become Norwood House, in Hendon. The capital costs of the move were high and the increase in services meant employing more professional staff and higher running costs. We are indebted to the Trustees of the Kennedy Leigh Foundation, the first major trust to give us financial support, for recognising the potential in our fledgling organisation and for their continuous support for the past twenty years.

The Centre provided the space for us to introduce many new services. Professional counselling, well wan and well woman screening, complementary therapies, laughter clinic (the first of its kind in the U.K.), genetic counselling, spiritual counselling, “Ask the Expert” lectures and many more. In addition we were able to bring our volunteer training and supervision in house. Most importantly, however, people in need of emotional support were able to access that help through “the back door”. They no longer needed to place a phone call to ask for support; instead they called to make an appointment for aromatherapy or reflexology and once we gained their confidence they felt comfortable enough to use the counseling services.

Chai was steadily gaining a reputation for excellence and professionalism.  Frances and I were invited to attend several Government Forums on cancer and we were also invited by the EU to Brussels as part of a British Delegation. People from throughout the UK who wanted to start cancer support groups contacted us for advice. In addition Chai was invited to take part in The North London Cancer Network, a network comprising the five major cancer Hospitals in North West London.

In November 1997, my husband Philip z’l was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and died after only two months in January 1998.  This was a bitter blow, especially coming only eight years after losing Natalie.  I must admit that there were times when I found the responsibility of running Chai and being surrounded by cancer on a daily basis difficult to bear. But knowing that so many people were relying on Chai ‘s support gave me the strength to carry on.

There is no doubt that the establishment of Chai Lifeline and its tremendous success was not achieved without personal cost to both Frances and me.  Frances was involved with Chai on a daily basis at a time in her life when her husband was retired and they should have been enjoying quality time together and with their family.

As for me, my involvement was also given at great cost to my family, especially my children, who lost me to Chai at times when they needed me the most, especially after the death of their Father.

By 2002 we were running out of space in Norwood House and needed to move. I am delighted that I was able to facilitate the purchase of 142 – 146 Great North Way in Hendon, before making Aliyah to Israel on my remarriage in December 2002.  Since then Chai Cancer Care has gone from strength to strength in very capable hands.

Finding it impossible to remain involved on a daily basis from so far away, I eventually resigned and handed over the reigns to my Co-Chairman Louise Hager.  Louise continues to run the organisation with the same passion and commitment that her mother and I had, with the addition of her own tremendous flair and warmth.  She is ably assisted by Chief Executive Elaine Kerr, who’s professionalism and commitment has enabled our vision from so long ago to become a reality.  In June this year we opened the Wohl Wing which gives us much needed additional space to meet the steadily increasing demand. We also have satellite centres in Redbridge, Southend, South London, North and South Manchester, Glasgow and Hackney with plans to open on the South Coast in the near future.

As I reflect upon Chai’s achievements over the past twenty years I am so very proud to have been part of the establishment and growth of such a wonderful organisation. I am only sorry that Natalie, my Co -Founder Frances Winegarten, fellow Trustees Philip Shipman, Ernest Weinstein and Aaron Winegarten and Honorary Patron Amelie Jakobovits are no longer with us to celebrate this special milestone.

I sincerely hope that the next twenty years will bring an increase in the cures for cancer and that eventually one day there will be no need for Chai Cancer Care’s services."