The inspirational charity work of a cancer survivor who organised Teesside fashion shows that raised £450,000 has been recognised with a special award.
Having twice had breast cancer, Mary Lee inspired people who’d had different forms of cancer to take to the catwalk for a series of unique fashion shows.
Now, after receiving a Teesside Hero award by Teesside Philanthropic Foundation in recognition of her inspirational fundraising achievements, she’s revealed that she’s in talks to potentially rekindle the popular shows that ended in 2010 due to rising costs.
Grandmother Mary, who has lived in Stokesley for the last 30 years, launched Celebration of Life After Cancer in 1999 after seeing the power of fashion shows to raise funds, change the profile of lesser known cancers and show people that cancer does not have to be the end.
Mary, 73, was first diagnosed with breast cancer more than 25 years ago when there was little support available for newly diagnosed patients.
Driven to help change that situation, she joined Breast Cancer Care and shortly afterwards became the north east regional organiser, a voluntary role that involved leading self-help groups and drop-in centres.
Mary felt that while breast cancer received plenty of attention and publicity, many other cancers appeared to receive little or no press coverage.
She decided to bring together patients with a wide a range of cancers to demonstrate to as many people as possible that there is life after cancer and that getting cancer does not have to mean the end of the world.
She enrolled the support of all the North-East’s hospices and support organisations, inspiring them to work together to put on a fashion show.
Having initially organised successful shows at Marton Country Club for Breast Cancer Care, she switched to the Tall Trees in Yarm to lead the organisation of five eye-catching shows over 10 years under the banner of A Celebration of Life after Cancer
Starring adults and children who either had or had previously had cancer, the themed shows regularly attracted audiences of more than 1,200 people.
Fundraising helped to support local people, cancer organisations and self-help groups, and provided 400 grants to parents who had suffered financial hardship after giving up work to look after children with cancer.
Mary, who lost her mother to cancer as a little girl, said the realisation that fashion shows could do so much good for cancer sufferers was like a "lightbulb moment, I just had tunnel vision from that moment on and knew what I had to do.
“I met so many wonderful people through the charity and so many incredible models who took to the catwalk to prove there was, and is, life after cancer.
“I wanted people to see that getting cancer can be frightening but that it doesn’t have to mean the end, and to see people up there on the catwalk who were living proof of that.
“I wanted people to feel they could talk about cancer. When Mum died, it was discussed in hushed tones – it was as if it was considered ‘dirty’. Things have improved but some cancers don’t get much publicity.
“The shows certainly helped but they became increasingly difficult as they grew in size, so we haven’t held one since 2009. But we’re now speaking to production teams about the potential for doing another one.”
Asked about receiving a Teesside Hero in a surprise presentation by Andy Preston, the Philanthropic Foundation’s chairman, Mary added: “I was touched but also embarrassed because I don’t see myself as that.
“The shows and fundraising only happened because of the commitment of dozens of other volunteers and organisations.
“I’m proud we raised £450,000 but it could have been better than that if I’d done a bit more.”