A Liverpool woman with an extraordinary family connection to The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre has been helping Cheshire and Merseyside’s specialist cancer hospital to celebrate its 65th birthday.
Helen Blanchard’s mother, Maureen Duncan, was only 21 when she moved from Glasgow to Merseyside in 1957 to be part of the team that would open the spacious new cancer hospital in a beautiful rural setting in Clatterbridge, near Bebington. Cancer care in the region would relocate to the new hospital from a smaller Victorian building in Liverpool city centre.
Maureen was a bright and highly-intelligent young woman who had recently dual-qualified in therapeutic and diagnostic radiography at Weston Hospital in Glasgow. She was fascinated by radiation treatment for cancer because she had received radiotherapy herself as a very young child for a very different reason – she had a portwine stain on her forehead and, incredibly, irradiation was offered as a cosmetic ‘cure’ back in the 1930s.
“Mum was a real high-flyer,” Helen remembers, ‘and she could have done anything she wanted career-wise but she was interested in radiography and it was a shorter course than medicine where she would have had to live at home for another five years.”
Keen to stretch her wings and excited by the opportunity to join a new team offering expanded, specialist cancer services for the people of Cheshire and Merseyside, Maureen spent her first few months working in Liverpool Radium Institute – where radiotherapy was based until 1958 – and helping to prepare for the new hospital to open.
On 28th March 1958, the new Clatterbridge Cancer Centre opened and Maureen was even featured in some of the media coverage at the time. “The Liverpool Daily Post did a full-page article about the new cancer hospital and mum was in one of the photos showing a radiotherapy treatment machine.”
Life at the hospital was very different back in 1958. The young radiographers and nurses mostly lived on site in accommodation designed for healthcare workers living away from home. Amazingly, they even had a swimming pool on the hospital campus.
“The mould room parties were legendary,” says Helen. “Mum used to tell me some great stories about the fun they had when they were off duty.”
Treatments were also very different from today’s highly-advanced cancer care. “The radiotherapy room had a folding floor that opened down so the machine could get underneath the patient,” says Helen.
Her mum worked at the cancer hospital from 1957 to 1964 but, in another sign of how much things have changed in the last 65 years, she had to leave her job when she got married. She returned for a short period in the early 1970s.
Two decades later, in 1984, Helen followed in Maureen’s footsteps and came to Clatterbridge as a student nurse. She later worked as a staff nurse on the hospital’s Sulby Ward and then moved to the radiotherapy treatment suite to help look after outpatients and children coming over from Arrowe Park for radiotherapy before leaving to train as a midwife.
Now Clatterbridge Cancer Centre – Wirral is celebrating 65 years of providing comfort, support and expert care for the people of Cheshire and Merseyside.
What was once a single hospital in a beautiful rural location has now expanded again to become one of the UK’s leading cancer centres, operating across multiple sites throughout Cheshire and Merseyside as well as carrying out pioneering research and providing highly-specialist treatments that wouldn’t have been imaginable in 1958.
There are now three Clatterbridge Cancer Centres; in Aintree, inLiverpool and in Wirral. The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust also runs treatment clinics in other hospitals across the region providing chemotherapy and other innovative drug treatments. It even has a team of specially-trained chemotherapy nurses so patients can have their treatment at home or at work.
Sadly, Maureen passed away in 2011 but Helen thinks her mum would have been fascinated by the advances in radiotherapy over the decades. She has gifted many of her mum’s old photos from her time at Clatterbridge Cancer Centre to the hospital and they capture some wonderful moments for the archive.
Helen has also experienced first-hand the care that Clatterbridge provides – she was treated there for breast cancer in 2014/15 and continues to have regular reviews to this day.
“So much has changed over the last 65 years,” says Helen, “and cancer care has come so far and expanded so much with Clatterbridge Cancer Centres in Liverpool, Wirral and Aintree, all providing radiotherapy and other treatments. It’s incredible to think that mum was part of the team that created something so special for people who need cancer care in Cheshire and Merseyside.”
Dr Liz Bishop, Chief Executive of The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust, said, “We’re delighted to be celebrating 65 years of providing highly-specialist cancer care at Clatterbridge Cancer Centre – Wirral for the people of Cheshire and Merseyside.
“We have been at the forefront of cancer care ever since and our services have continued to grow with new services and additional sites, including the opening of Clatterbridge Cancer Centre – Aintree in 2011 and our new flagship Clatterbridge Cancer Centre – Liverpool in June 2020.
“One of the biggest changes over the last 65 years has been in the ability to tailor treatment for individual patients, based on greater understanding of genetics, cell changes and cell biology. There have also been huge advances in immunotherapy and cancer vaccines and this is an area where our clinical teams are recognised as leading the way with several important first-in-human trials.”