Vegetarian diets. Positive thinking. The Bristol Cancer Help Centre's approach to fighting the disease was once seen as quackery. But 20 years after opening, its ideas are now being embraced by doctors

Standing in the hall of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, all plush carpeting, soft lights and fresh flowers, a former patient suddenly breaks into song. It's a number from South Pacific. A woman patient who is walking barefoot up the stairs, pink scarf wrapped around her head, joins in the gaiety. The words ''there is nothing like a dame'' float down the banister after her.

Standing in the hall of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, all plush carpeting, soft lights and fresh flowers, a former patient suddenly breaks into song. It's a number from South Pacific. A woman patient who is walking barefoot up the stairs, pink scarf wrapped around her head, joins in the gaiety. The words ''there is nothing like a dame'' float down the banister after her.

There was a time when the Centre, which offers a range of complementary therapies, was regarded with considerable scepticism. For some, such notions as tackling cancer with a vegetable-based diet and positive thinking was bordering on quackery. Today, 20 years after it first opened, around 30 per cent of people with cancer use complementary therapies as part of their treatment. Over 34 per cent of deaths by cancer have since been shown to be related to nutrition, and research has proved that those who don't feel their condition is hopeless stand a greater chance of living longer.

Once shunned by the medical profession, the Centre now trains nurses in the use of complementary therapies, and this week it held a workshop for 64 Japanese doctors. Some GPs fund their patient's stay. The Centre is held in such regard that it recently contributed to two Select Committee hearings on complementary therapy and cancer research. For Professor Karol Sikora, director of Cancer Services at the World Health Organisation, Bristol ''represents the gold standard for complementary care in cancer''.

''When the Centre started 20 years ago it was very radical and unique in its approach. The idea that patients could somehow contribute themselves to their own healing and recovery was quite an unusual concept,'' says Christopher Head, the Centre's chief executive.

''There was a period around 1990 when the work here was questioned in a research report, which subsequently turned out to be very badly flawed. That did a lot of damage to the Centre and it very nearly collapsed. It has built itself back up and the medical establishment has moved on in lots of ways so they are much more understanding and appreciative of the sort of work that's done here.''

In 1996 the then chief medical officers of England and Wales produced a report on cancer services in the UK, which recognised the value of psycho-social help such as support groups. ''That really signalled the point at which the Centre came in from the cold, and the work that has been done here over all the years, along with other people in more recent times, became more recognised,'' says Head.

One of the problems the Centre has always faced, and continues to do so, is the paucity of scientific research proving that the therapies work. ''There isn't enough good quality research on the efficacy of a lot of complementary therapies, and that is a problem in that the conventional medical establishment quite rightly want to see what the benefits are,'' admits Head.

''The randomised control trial methodology of, say, chemotherapy, isn't applicable to the more qualitative analysis that's required when dealing with emotional support and the benefits of visualisation and so on. But there is still enough around to really suggest that pretty much all we do here has validity and benefit for people.''

Head points to a photocopy of a newspaper article with the headline "Positive Thinking Does Kill Cancer Cells, Research Shows", stuck to his filing cabinet. "I love that,'' he says.

The Centre takes in around 800 patients a year, most of whom are also undergoing orthodox treatment. It offers two- or five-day residential courses, which can be followed up by one-day "top-ups". A two-day introductory course costs £525, and five days £995. Therapies include massage, meditation, healing, counselling, visualisation, shiatsu and art and music therapy. Patients are also taught self-help techniques to help them relax and lower their stress levels at home, as well as nutritional advice.

Helen Cooke, director of therapy, says the Centre gives patients a chance to try the therapies and decide which suits them best. ''We think complementary therapies are essential to helping cancer. They shouldn't be just seen as the icing on the cake, but the yeast in the dough. We try and choose those that have some evidence base.

''We are not saying necessarily that people are going to come here to cure their cancer, we can never make that claim. We very much say it's about life-expansion, and some of these therapies have been shown to prolong survival.''

Crucially, a stay at the Centre also gives patients an opportunity to re-evaluate their lifestyle. ''People say to us that they have been relieved that they have a diagnosis of cancer because it has taught them how to live,'' says Cooke. ''Numerous people have claimed they have had a transformational experience, and out of the crisis of the illness they have actually been able to totally re-evaluate their life, and found greater meaning and greater happiness than they had before.''

The diet at Bristol is vegan. Liz Season, one of its nutritional therapists, says vegetables should make the basis of a meal. ''The pleasure side is really important. People come here expecting some horrible diet, but actually what it's all about here is really enjoying your food, and getting back to healthy food that you love and want to eat. When people do change their diets and come back here, they say they couldn't go back to how they used to eat.''

The man who has broken into song in the hall is Robert Ross, 56, a former career adviser from Oxford. He has every reason to be singing. Three years ago he was diagnosed with cancer and told he had 12 months to live. In 1996 his dentist spotted something in his mouth and referred him to hospital. A biopsy showed it was cancer, and Ross underwent surgery. After making what seemed to be a good recovery, he returned to work. However, his first check-up six months later revealed a tumour on his liver and lung. In January 1997 Ross was told his condition was inoperable. Neither chemotherapy nor radiotherapy was an option. ''I said to the consultant: 'If I do everything in my power to look after myself, how long have I got?' He said 12 months.''

Having been told to "put his affairs in order", Ross came to Bristol for two days to help cope with the illness. ''I liked what I heard, and it reinforced my decision to make changes to my lifestyle - a healthier diet, I took up bowls and badminton, retired and took up creative writing,'' he says.

''I was most sceptical about the healing. I come from a scientific background originally, but I found it has a very, very calming effect.'' He also took up meditation and creative visualisation, imagining his cancer cells being eliminated. Nine months after his initial diagnosis there was no worsening in his lungs. ''I still feel fine,'' he says. ''As far as I know the cancer has stopped. I would attribute it to the changes I made in my diet and lifestyle.''

He has returned to the Centre three times for single follow-up days. ''It's highly unlikely I would have survived without the centre. I'm not sure I would have done anything like as much as I have done if I hadn't had their guidelines. Three years later it all seems like common sense to me. I feel strongly indebted to them. I'm sure they're right with their cancer treatment, I just wish the rest of world would catch up.''

* The Bristol Cancer Help Centre can be reached on 0117 980 9500. Those wanting the helpline should call 0117 980 9505