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Sailing adventure: how young cancer patients can rebuild confidence at sea

Posted on Sep 30, 2021

The word cancer should never be associated with children but, very sadly, around 4,400 young people in the UK, aged 24 and under, are diagnosed with cancer every year, according to figures from Cancer Research UK. That’s about 12 a day. Fortunately, survival rates are increasing, but young people and their families can remain vulnerable long after treatment.

They can struggle with a number of difficult repercussions in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Seven in 10 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 experienced depression during their treatment, while 90% experienced anxiety, and 83% felt lonely, a study by Young Lives vs Cancer – previously Clic Sargent – shows.

That’s where the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust comes in. The trust supports people between the ages of eight and 24 who have had cancer treatment by running sailing and outdoor activity adventures on the Isle of Wight and Scotland’s west coast.

Founder Ellen MacArthur – who set a world sailing record for the fastest solo non-stop voyage around the world in 2005 – says: “A chasm exists between treatment and young people successfully re-engaging with social, emotional, educational and employment norms. We aim to fill that gap.”

Dame Ellen MacArthur. Photograph: Rose Ely/Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Since 2010, the trust has received funding raised by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery. To date, players have raised more than £3.2m for Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust through its Postcode Active Trust. A third (33%) of each ticket sold goes to charities and good causes.

Laura Chow, head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, says a number of factors are taken into consideration when selecting which charities to work with. “We support charities that inspire positive change for individuals and communities through sport and activities. The Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust pairs the thrill and joy of sailing with rebuilding confidence and recovery from cancer,” Chow says.

For MacArthur, the funds raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery were a gamechanger: “It has been a true long-term partnership, where the trust and People’s Postcode Lottery fully understand each other’s needs. The trust is now bigger, better, and braver.”

The funding has enabled the trust to run more than 30 sailing and outdoor activity adventures each year, as well as open a second base in Scotland, and invest in two specially-adapted yachts that make sailing more accessible. The trust has also introduced canal boat trips for wheelchair users.

Many young people miss out on education and employment during cancer treatment and can find it difficult to pick things up where they left off afterwards, MacArthur says. “They can be crippled by shyness as they lose day-to-day contact with people and their friends move on. Survivor guilt is also common, as they question why they lived and friends they made during treatment didn’t.”

The pandemic has made things even more confusing, scary and isolating. “It has amplified the loneliness, isolation and anxiety experienced by young people. On top of that, there is often increased family anxiety and/or financial hardship,” MacArthur says.

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So how does the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust help young people rebuild their confidence? “Through our sailing and outdoor activity adventures, young people feel valued, optimistic and independent. They can start to re-establish their place in the world and reconnect with friends and family,” MacArthur says.

Sailing is the vehicle that helps change their outlook. “It’s the environment that being on a boat creates. Everyone gets together, has stories to tell, is busy – they’re cooking and cleaning and doing normal things again, often things they haven’t done since their diagnosis. It’s a bit of an adventure,” MacArthur explains.

Jonathan Bradwell, from Hertfordshire, was 11 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. After undergoing more than three years of gruelling treatment, he went on his first sailing trip in 2014. This summer was his sixth time away with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust.

“Everywhere else in your life cancer is a rare thing, but at the trust it’s the most common thing in the world. Everybody has had it. To be able to talk about it without it being awkward was astounding, a real confidence boost. Everybody has their own story.”

MacArthur is equally happy in being an important part of the trust. “It’s been an absolute privilege to have been involved and to have supported almost 2,700 young people over the past 18 years,” she says.

Since 2005, People’s Postcode Lottery has raised more than £750m for charities and good causes. To find out more, visit postcodelottery.co.uk

People’s Postcode Lottery manages lotteries on behalf of charities who receive a minimum of 33% from each ticket sale.

Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust is a registered charity in England & Wales (1096491) and Scotland (SC044013). Funding awarded by Postcode Active Trust, a registered Scottish charity (SC044967).