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An oasis of calm to take away the pain of cancer

In the greater scheme of things it may not hit the top of the priority list.

But once the reality of a cancer diagnosis kicks in, once the medical options have been discussed and decided, once the inevitable panic subsides, the implications of the treatment also begin to sink in.

One obvious immediate concern for those patients deemed suitable for chemotherapy is the possible attendant hair loss.

Not just the head hair, but eyebrows and eyelashes. The hairy bits we take for granted, which help frame the face and determine its character.

George Sutherland is acutely aware what these losses mean, particularly to women. He runs a hair salon in the west end of Glasgow. But one day a week he takes his scissors and his considerable skills a little further west to the Friends of the Beatson unit attached to the Beatson Centre.

And within the profoundly un-hospital like furnishings of this determinedly user-friendly space he helps patients find a wig, then cuts and styles it to their own specification.

Some, says Mr Sutherland, didn't know you could style a wig, or that in Scotland the NHS will pay for one to be provided. (In England the first £60 is paid towards buying a wig.) "For many people, men included, hair loss seems devastating at first," he says. "Although for women who may have had a mastectomy there's more of a sense of perspective.

"There's no doubt that how you look has a big impact on how you feel, and that special space on the fourth floor – totally unlike the ward experience and with no uniformed medical staff – is a real haven.

"One patient I knew used to get her wig styled at the same time every week because, she said, she wanted to look her best when her boys came to visit. Then one day I was there when they arrived and her 'boys' turned out to be full-grown adult men."

Mr Sutherland will sometimes go into town with patients to select the wig, offering a professional eye as to what will suit their colouring. And he is full of praise for the other therapies on offer within the unit, which offers stylish furnishings, private and public seating, digital TV channels and a range of drinks, all free to patients.

That's because the area, which occupies about a quarter of the Beatson's fourth floor, is run by the Friends charity, set up originally by former patients Ian Dickson and Alan Kilpatrick. Both men were successfully treated for testicular cancer and, while applauding the quality of medical treatment and care, wanted to offer in-patients the kind of support and comfort not possible in a formal hospital environment with a stretched budget.

Creating a space which provided a comforting time-out, they reasoned, would not affect NHS funding or duplicate facilities.

In the beginning, says director Irene Johnstone, before the new Beatson cancer hospital was built, all that could mean was a space with soft furnishings.

But now patients who go to the fourth floor oasis, some of them still attached to treatment pumps, can access everything from reiki and a variety of massages, to beauty therapy and chiropody. It's where some men get the first facial of their lives, grins Mr Sutherland. There is also specialist help on tap for insomnia, anxieties and pain management.

"Often people coming into hospital feel they've lost their independence, lost control," observes Ms Johnstone. "This place lets them feel like people again and not just patients. It gives them privacy and the opportunity to chat to others with similar experiences. It's a nice space which doesn't seem remotely like a hospital. Medical staff are banned and need permission to come in."

Mr Sutherland and Ms Johnstone make an interesting observation about the psychology of the hospital experience in terms of the friends and family as well as those admitted to the wards.

"It's not often talked about," says Mr Sutherland. "But constant hospital visiting can be a strain for both visitors and patients. One of the great bonuses of this place is that someone can say to their nearest and dearest not to bother coming in because they're watching a match with others that night. The patient has a night off and the visitors know their friend or relative is in a safe, supported place."

Ms Johnstone adds: "We get letters from former patients saying that having this space has made the hospital experience endurable and got them through a traumatic time in their lives."

The Glasgow centre is the only one of its kind in the UK which offers in-patients these opportunities, although a number of charities and centres will offer out-patient advice, therapies and treatments.

It would be idle to pretend a well-cut wig and a body massage will erase the fears and anxieties of cancer patients. But we should never under-estimate the benefits of the companionship, comfort and support a unit such as Friends of the Beatson can provide regardless of prognosis, gender, or income.

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