Obituary: Penny Brohn

Tim Bullamore
Friday 12 February 1999 00:02 GMT

PENNY BROHN was a woman of remarkable vision and courage who not only fought tenaciously against her own cancer, but also successfully challenged those who discredited her pioneering work at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in October 1979, Brohn ventured on a personal healing journey that took her to clinics around the world. It was on one of these journeys with her friend Pat Pilkington the following year, to the clinic of Dr Josef Issels in Bavaria, that the pair decided to establish the pioneering centre in Bristol with a group of like-minded friends.

Their approach was a holistic one inviting patients to view their state of health or illness as the result of inter-acting influences between mind, body and spirit, and the environment in which they lived. Consequently, the treatment programmes they pioneered at the centre are individually tailored and include therapy, complementary medicine, support, healing and orthodox medicine.

Pat Pilkington and her husband, Canon Christopher Pilkington (of the glass family), were already running a healing centre in Bristol. By pooling their resources and ideas and drawing on the voluntary expertise of like- minded professionals, the Bristol Cancer Help Centre came into being.

Before long a journalist was dispatched to expose the flaws in their complementary medicine. But so impressed was he by their work that he made a six-part television series, The Gentle Way, which was broadcast by the BBC. The response was overwhelming and it became clear that the centre would have to be put on a more formal footing. Staff had to be recruited and paid, a residential building acquired, and charges made for care (although a charitable trust provides financial help for the most needy).

The centre was formally opened in its new building, Grove House, in 1983 by the Prince of Wales and throughout the 1980s provided hope and inspiration to cancer sufferers the world over. During this time Brohn found her own health improving and was able to devote a great deal of energy to spreading her belief that there was far more to cancer care than conventional medicine.

But the obstacles the centre encountered were, if anything, as difficult as those Brohn faced with her personal health. Her approach was viewed with scepticism by the medical establishment and at times she risked alienating even her own medical team. Step by step she negotiated the acceptance of her ideas and created a widespread understanding of the true nature and value of what is now called the "Bristol approach" to cancer.

Speaking last April, she said: "In those days you were told there was nothing you could do and just leave it to the doctors, which was very frustrating. In the centre, patients come to help themselves. I wanted to get the patient involved. I found out that patients were being excluded from their own recovery programme."

On the verge of taking a back seat in September 1990, Brohn was dealt a potentially devastating blow by publication in The Lancet of the erroneous results of the Chilvers Report, which had been funded by two major cancer charities. It purported to show that, instead of being helped, women who were treated for breast cancer at the Bristol centre were twice as likely to die prematurely from the disease. Brohn took the brunt of the media savaging that followed with an exhausting series of combative exchanges on both television and in the newspapers.

In the aftermath of the report the 11 women who had taken part in the survey fought back. They publicly denounced the findings and, in an unprecedented display of patient power, challenged not only the scientists who had carried out the study but also the cancer charities that had sponsored it. Their campaign resulted in a public apology and new guidelines being drawn up by the Charities Commission for the funding of medical research.

Born Penny Tamblyn in Clifton, a suburb of Bristol, she studied at Leeds University before becoming a child care officer in Bristol in 1967. She went on to work as a lecturer at Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England) before training as an acupuncturist and specialist in Chinese medicine in Hong Kong and Leamington Spa.

From this grew her awareness of the complex inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. When diagnosed with cancer she was convinced that it was a disease of all of her and not just her breast. Brohn drew on every conceivable source of inspiration in her brave and pioneering attempt to bring the cancer in her body under control. She wrote two books, Gentle Giants (1987) and The Bristol Programme (1992), about her life and work, and appeared on countless television and radio programmes as well as dealing with sheaves of correspondence from cancer patients.

After the 1990 setback, Brohn stayed on at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre to help repair the inordinate damage. Soon afterwards she suffered her most serious recurrence of the cancer in the form of a spinal bone tumour. Following conventional surgery she partially retired to Crete where, at a stage in her illness when many patients would have been in a hospice, she spent several blissful years renovating a mountainside cottage under the comforting rays of the Greek sunshine.

Today the Bristol Cancer Help Centre continues to run courses and offers a range of literature, tapes, videos and programmes designed to take patients through their therapeutic journey. Based on the premise that healing is a process and not an event, cancer sufferers are offered advice on a range of issues including diet, breathing, exercise, visualisation, relaxation, meditation, creativity and massage. According to the centre, patients report a reduction in fear, anxiety and isolation; improvements in physical well-being, energy levels and sleep; and greater symptom control and toleration of conventional treatments.

Throughout the difficult times Brohn took great comfort from the unwavering support of the Prince of Wales, who said: "The approach pioneered at Bristol has influenced the development and improvement of cancer services all over Britain."

Exceptionally beautiful, intelligent and gifted, Penny Brohn was blessed with a razor-sharp wit, a gift for communicating creative ideas and concepts, and seemingly boundless energy. She lived for almost 20 years with an illness for which there is normally only a 50 per cent five-year survival rate. But more than that she gave hope, comfort and arguably prolonged life to many thousands of other cancer sufferers.

Penelope Jane Tamblyn, alternative medicine practictioner: born Bristol 18 July 1943; married 1964 Dr David Brohn (one son, two daughters); died Saltford, Somerset 3 February 1999.

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