Manchester’s Unsung Heroes: First cancer patient to run marathon raises £1million for unique holistic centre

By Sarah Brook

Running a marathon is hard enough, let alone doing it with cancer, but when Neil Cliffe overcame the near-impossible in the first-ever Piccadilly marathon, his life changed forever.

After being diagnosed with cancer aged 45, Mr Cliffe underwent a life-saving operation and has since gone on to raise £1million to build a unique outpatient care centre.

From what started out as a thank-you present from one man to his surgeon 31 years ago, the Neil Cliffe Centre now stands proud in the grounds of Wythenshawe Hospital.

Offering free care to people who are affected by life-limiting illnesses, Mr Cliffe said the centre is everything he could have ever wished for.

“I am not an athlete, so becoming the first man in England to run a marathon with cancer, was a great achievement,” he said.

“Doctors and nurses were all there along the way because I am sure they thought I would collapse, but I beat my surgeon!

“When I promised to get my surgeon an endoscope all those years ago, I never thought I would still be alive today and have a care centre named after me.”

Visiting the Alexandra Hospital and meeting the carers of terminally-ill patients, inspired Mr Cliffe to go on from his first marathon and make a difference.

He made a vow with a close friend that whoever survived the longest from cancer would make people with cancer and their carers as comfortable as possible.

Sadly for Mr Cliffe his friend died, but true to his word he carried on the promise and is now living to tell the tale.

“I never thought I was going to go on to do this but it happens,” the Vice President of St Ann’s Hospice said.

“Something touches you and it’s in your heart and your head and you can’t let go of it. It becomes your baby.”

Thanks to the help of his team and supportive Coronation Street cast members, Mr Cliffe launched the brick-to-brick appeal.

With more than 200 million people in Greater Manchester Mr Cliffe believed enough people would buy a brick to turn his dream building into a reality.

“There is trauma in a carer’s face and I knew I had to get something done,” said the 77-year-old.

“After seeing the Alexandra I knew I wanted to do something that had never been done before and that was free for everyone.

“I thought what is good for the goose should be good for the gander.

“I was not angry when I saw all these beautiful suites and carpets at the private hospital.

“I was just determined to recreate it within an NHS hospital.”

After a long battle with cancer and watching others around him suffer, Mr Cliffe wanted to create a holistic centre, which could support the whole needs of a person.

“There’s much more to a person than a tumour. They have a mind, they have emotions and they have a heart,” he said.

“They have a spiritual side and all this can be healed but it can take a long time.

“The wife or the husband might need healing. We need to offer them help too – they are so traumatised.

“I wanted nice lovely therapy rooms where people can sit and relax and also communal meditation places.”

For most, being quoted £1million for a building in the 80s would have been a step too far but not for Mr Cliffe, who was determined to see his plans succeed.

“I could have easily just walked away from it all and gone home but I remember thinking something my lecturer had once told me,” Mr Cliffe added.

“By the inch it’s a synch by the yard it’s hard.

“I knew if I broke each payment down into small pieces, I could raise the money.

“I was sure people would give £1 to help me create the first care unit of its kind.”

The Neil Cliffe charity quickly became popular in Greater Manchester and the founder admitted he was surprised with all the support he received.

“I had members of the Coronation Street cast with me everywhere I went,” he said.

“Manchester City football players, Manchester United stars, you name it.

“It just went bigger and better than I ever expected, it was a huge shock.

“The last £100,000 was the toughest to raise but we said ‘let’s lift the roof’ and we did.

“We are only as good as our team and I was very lucky.”

With 17 marathons, 54 half marathons and 19,500 miles of training under his belt, Neil Cliffe has certainly surpassed all medical expectations.

The centre – which is open five days a week – has five key workers who offer free treatment and therapies to terminally-ill patients and their carers.

The charity joined forces with the St Ann’s Hospice organisation in the hope of influencing the movement of holistic treatments into their care.

“I think we were very influential in bringing this to them,” Mr Cliffe added.

“It is so very special because it became very quickly a Centre of Excellence. “

After many requests the centre decided to branch out and offer not only people with cancer treatment but also those with other life-threatening illnesses.

Ensuring people see the big picture is key to Mr Cliffe’s legacy, who believes carers more than anyone need support.

“It is awful for a man living with a colostomy bag, but how about his wife?” Mr Cliffe said.

“The carers are often forgotten about. When people are just burnt out from caring, we want to offer them support in forms of counselling.

“Also patients themselves need emotional support.

“When you are dying and you know that you are, you need lots of help.”

This was the case for 73-year-old Ted Chatt who was diagnosed with prostate, bone and secondary spine cancer in 2003 and had nowhere to turn.

“I was in a very bad place, I was not well at all. I was struggling with the illness from a mental point of view,” Mr Chatt said.

“I was having a lot of pain and discomfort from the treatment.

“When I walked in through those doors, my life changed.

“The Neil Cliffe Centre helped me to get back my life because they saved me from myself.

“They helped my wife Norma more importantly too.

“She was able to have her own sessions where she could just open up and cry.”

Mr Chatt was so grateful for the treatment he was given at the centre that he decided to become a volunteer himself.

“They have been absolutely wonderful and I do what I can when I can,” he added.

“Neil is an amazing man and what he has done is so inspirational.

“I would recommend the centre to anyone who has a life-threatening illness.

“The people there are outstanding. You could never feel you could get that sort of thing in the NHS.”

With the centre offering free care, fund-raising is vital and requiring £16,000 a day, £9million pounds a year can be a daunting task.

“This year for reasons that we all know of, we are finding it very difficult for the very first time to raise funds,” Mr Cliffe said.

“Austerity is hitting everybody and it’s hitting some people more than others.

“We are now fighting very hard to keep our funding up.”

With people able to ring in and refer themselves to the centre, Mr Cliffe promises that he will never turn anyone away.

“We can’t cure but we can make you more comfortable,” he added.

“We can make you feel more confident within and we will make you get enjoyment out of today.

“We will help anyone, in whatever ways we can to get the most out of their life.”

Mr Cliffe – who continues to travel the country as a guest speaker – admitted he will keep raising money until he dies.

“I already have 20 bookings for 2014,” he said.

“I have a flame inside me, an enthusiasm that will never burn out.

“I will keep going until I physically can’t because it is my everything.”

For more information about the Neil Cliffe Centre visit 

Marathon picture courtesy of Neil Cliffe, with thanks

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