Illness and Poverty – Margaret and The Pink Ladies

Inevitably, in the course of revamping my website, I’ve found myself thinking about the amazing projects and people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. One of them was cancer patient Margaret Kelly.

In 2010 I made Getting By a documentary about people living beneath the “poverty line” in Britain.  At that time one fifth of the country’s 60 million population were considered to be in this bracket.

When I was asked to make the film by the Media Trust for the Community Channel I had no idea how significant the issue was. The statistics amazed me, but in the course of making the film I learnt just how thin the breadline is and how easily one can fall on the wrong side of it. I followed the stories of four people whose live had taken them there for very different reasons – a cancer patient, a separated father, a terminally ill student and a pensioner.

Margaret, from Londonderry, Northern Ireland was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2009. One of the little known and under discussed effects of cancer is poverty. As a result of her illness, Margaret lost her job as a nurse, her husband left her and she had to survive on £60 a week. During a bitter winter she was forced to choose between buying food or heating her home. She chose to eat and as a result, while she was undergoing treatment and at her lowest point, she was without any heating at all. As depression set in, Margaret withdrew from the world. The situation became so hard to bear that she was on the verge of taking an overdose.

Luckily, in the end, Margaret admitted the extent of her suffering to friends and family who helped her through. She went on to lobby for fuel payments with the Pink Ladies, a support group which takes a community based approach to helping those effected by cancer. They took their campaign to the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont in October 2011.

Knowing Margaret’s energy and enthusiasm even with she was ill, if all the Pink Ladies are like her, there is no way the politicians could have said no.

Margaret showed my film, Getting By, to MPs to support the Pink Ladies’ cause.

Here’s a clip from it

Two months later the Pink Ladies were successful. The Stormont Executive announced that cancer patients, together with other people on benefits, would receive a special one-off winter payment to ensure they would keep warm.

This applied to 250,000 people across Northern Ireland, including 22,000 people in Derry.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot recently. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world more people will fall into poverty and more people will experience feelings of loneliness. It makes the existence of community support groups such as the Pink Ladies even more important.