February 2023

A cancer diagnosis is devastating news for anyone. It’s a grenade thrown into your world, causing panic and shattering normality, destroying plans and raising endless questions. Often it makes you feel totally alone, even if you’re surrounded by loving family and friends; often the thing that helps most is being around people who are going through the same thing.

That’s why groups like the Living Tree are so valuable. Meeting weekly here in Bridport, the Living Tree is a self-help and support group for people affected by cancer and their carers and loved ones. It’s a space where people can get advice, take part in a range of activities or simply enjoy a cuppa and a chat. 

The Living Tree was founded in 2012 by Jo O’Farrell and the current chair, Jo Millar, who says: “I’d been having treatment for cancer and a mutual friend introduced me to Jo, thinking we’d hit it off. We did! She’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma three years earlier, and we both thought it would be good to have a group like this, so we set about trying to get it off the ground. We got a £5,000 Macmillan grant and began with just six or so people; we wanted to start small, as everyone was having treatment, and we let it grow naturally.”

Sadly, Jo O’Farrell died in 2018. “She did so much for the Living Tree behind the scenes – it was her way of coping,” says Jo Millar. “After such a loss – and that of Fiona Burkeman, who also died in 2018 and who had also been central to the growth of the group – I realised I’d have to delegate more and get organised. The group has grown, thanks to people’s willingness to get involved and amazing support from the town, too. We now have 20 to 30 people who come along regularly to various weekly activities, plus many more who keep in touch via our newsletter and social media.”

The Living Tree holds a drop-in session every Friday afternoon (2–4pm) at the Quaker Meeting House in South Street. There are sometimes activities such as singing, art and craft, yoga or Tripudio (a gentle form of exercise targeted at the lymphatic system), sometimes a speaker or demonstration, and always tea and healthy snacks. Some people come for the whole two hours, some pop in for a shorter time – everyone is welcome.

Although some health-related advice is available – particularly suggestions for complementary therapies that may boost wellbeing – and members share their experiences, the Living Tree isn’t about ‘cancer talk’. “We just talk about normal things here,” says Tony Meakin. “When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, many people in your life don’t know what to say to you, which makes you feel isolated. Here, though, we’re all in the same boat, whether you’re having treatment, are caring for someone who is, or you’ve lost a loved one to the disease.”

“There’s no doom and gloom here,” adds John Johnston. “Usually we don’t even know what type of cancer other members have. It’s a wonderful group. When I was first diagnosed, I thought it didn’t sound like my type of thing, but I was wrong! Then years later, when I was recovering, I wanted to give something back, so I kept coming and got involved. I didn’t think I needed therapy, I just wanted to help others going through what I’d experienced. I realise now that the Living Tree was my therapy.

“It’s particularly hard to get men to ‘join in’ and come to groups like this, but once you step through the door you realise how helpful it is. And you can do as much or as little as you like. For me, it was one good thing to come out of my cancer; I’ve met some great people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Roz Copson is well known in Bridport for her campaign work for mental health services, but she got involved with the Living Tree a few years ago when Jo Millar – her GP at the time – asked if she would help with fundraising. Roz has since organised initiatives including a marathon walk in 2017 in aid of the cancer unit at Dorset County Hospital, and a half marathon the following year. She found herself benefiting from the group’s support more recently, however, when a benign brain tumour that she’d been living with started to grow.

“Suddenly I was on the receiving end, which was a real eye-opener,” says Roz. “In December I spent three days at Southampton Hospital having treatment, and I have a follow-up visit this month; I’m hoping my treatment is finished. I’m so grateful for the medical expertise at Southampton, and for the friendship and support of the Living Tree folk. There are so many stories here, and people have different ways of coping, but really everyone just wants to help each other.”

As well as its Friday drop-in, the Living Tree runs table tennis sessions at Bridport Leisure Centre and Salwayash Village Hall, a ‘Splash Club’ group at Highlands End swimming pool, and local amblers’ walks. It also has an allotment in Pymore Road, where green-fingered members meet on Wednesdays (10am to noon) to tend the plot – no experience required! At the end of the morning they enjoy herbal teas, snacks and smoothies, often made from their own produce.

For a while the Living Tree also held a Thursday evening group at The Bull Hotel. It was popular and provided an opportunity for working people to benefit from the camaraderie and support that the organisation offers. Partners were encouraged to come along.

The charity runs a stall whenever it has an opportunity – such as at the Melplash Show and the Charter Fair – to raise awareness of its work and to raise funds by selling its books (the Book of Words, Living Treats, and Jo O’Farrell’s poetry books) and homemade greetings cards.

“Thanks to our hard-working committee members and volunteers – plus the wonderful people of Bridport – our group is thriving,” says Jo Millar. “The community is so supportive of what we do, and many local groups have raised money for us. I hope we’ll be able to continue helping people affected by cancer long into the future.”