Belinda Gray: ‘Things happen in our lives for a reason’
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness month, I can think of no one better to talk to than Art for Cure’s Belinda Gray. A woman who, almost by accident, has become the face of fundraising for the disease in the east of England.
Compassionate. Bold. Brave. Unfailingly enthusiastic. Belinda’s charitable efforts have raised more than £900,000 in aid of breast cancer research, care and support.
Most recently (and with the tally yet to be released) she hosted Feast – an exhibition of food-related art in Aldeburgh, and there are plans afoot already for 2022’s events.
“I can’t believe this all started at my home back in 2014,” Belinda reminisces as we chat, while she walks her beloved dogs in the early autumn Suffolk countryside. “Next year I want whatever we do to be a real celebration of all the money everyone involved has raised over the years. To give thanks to those who’ve supported us. Watch this space.”
Belinda, 57, who lives just outside Bredfield, is married to Alex, and a proud mum to 25-year-old Millie, and Sam, 27 – who have supported her through life events no family should have to go through.
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Born in London, Belinda’s family upped sticks to Devon almost immediately after her arrival, settling in Totnes. “It was a beautiful place,” she recalls. “I went to the local school, which everybody went to because it was kind of rural, right on the edge of Dartmoor. But it was wonderful. We had a real outdoor life. My sister Sarah, who’s two years older than me and is a lecturer in graphic design in London, was very arty. We were always surrounded by creative people.”
So you could say, with Art for Cure, Belinda’s gone full circle. Only...she wasn’t interested in art at all as a girl.
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“Definitely not,” she laughs. “I always wanted to be a nurse. I broke my arm very badly when I was 10 after slipping on some ice and was admitted to a busy casualty unit. I was completely entranced by the excitement of the A & E department. From that day on, it was my aspiration to work there.”
Belinda had her first foray into nursing at the tender age of 19, taking up a position at St Thomas’ in London. While waiting to be inducted, she grabbed the opportunity to work on Buzzy Regent’s Street at world-famous department store Liberty’s. And therein came a dilemma. Belinda was so enthusiastic, Liberty’s offered her a spot on their graduate buyers’ course.
It was a crossroads.
“I had such a big decision to make. Whether to stay in retail, or follow my dream into nursing. But I absolutely chose nursing. And it was an amazing career. I carried on until I had my first child. At the time I was working with terminal AIDS patients, supporting them at home with palliative care.
“It was a difficult job to do with a young baby, at the height of the crisis. It was dreadful. The horror of it. We saw people dying with multiple organ failures. We’d never experienced anything like it. The aggression of the symptoms these young guys had to deal with was haunting.”
Belinda balks at Channel 4’s highly praised hit show It’s A Sin, feted for its portrayal of the 80s HIV and AIDs crisis, saying, in her eyes, it didn’t truly represent what it was like being on the frontline.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw a boy in an empty room, left to die in hospital on his own. I felt what they did was a bit antiquated for the time.
“Actually the AIDs movement and the medical care and support care jumped up apace very quickly and there was a tremendous amount of funding available, which was quite controversial.
“Places like The Landmark were open and amazing. And the buddy system came in, so anyone dying at home of AIDs could have a volunteer visit them, giving loads of day-to-day support.
“The show did, though, show the grief well - the whole chain of people affected when those they loved were dying. I remember a dreadful leaflet coming in the door with the Grim Reaper on. It was like the Black Death. Really horrific.”
Being a new mum, the daily sight of death and pain was more than Belinda could bare, forcing her to leave the profession she’d set her heart on all those years before.
And she did something different. Really different. A new entrepreneur, Belinda began a home-run business called The Setting, buying up trendy tableware from around the world, and selling the pieces to home cooks inspired to entertain by a new wave of telly chefs. The likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.
“I had the idea to set up this mail order company selling Moroccan settings, or rustic Italian stoneware. But,” she laughs, “after a lot of breakages I thought ‘I can’t deal with this’.”
Things were about to change. When her grandfather died, and her grandmother moved from Southwold down to the West Country, Belinda and Alex took on their Suffolk coastal home as a family getaway...and rental.
They couldn’t keep away. And after many holidays in the region, and being ‘worn down’ by the education system in London, the couple made a move, with the kids in tow – aged six and eight.
“They loved being out on the beach,” Belinda remembers. “But they really really hated learning to sail! There was so much more freedom up here. They had the space to do all the things we did as children. Building dens and treehouses and living outside. It was a happy childhood.”
They then inherited a house in Bredfield with a Victorian walled garden, moving there from Southwold. The beginning of another new venture for Belinda, who says she had to learn quicksmart how to look after the generous plot of land.
The new gardener retrained on an RHS course at Otley College and threw herself into becoming self-sufficient, filling the grounds with produce, and gaining a “huge satisfaction” with life in the process.
Belinda was so enthralled with her newfound hobby that she booked onto a garden design course at Chelsea – opening a gardening school from her home.
“I thought if I could learn from scratch how to grow all these things, I’d like to teach it to others, so I stated a small business called The Grower. We had an annexe in the vegetable garden and I had up to 15 people at a time in for the day or short courses, using the garden as our classroom.
“I’d explain how to grow seasonally, and through the winter, and how to preserve. It was so exciting. I absolutely loved pushing myself to grow new things and try different recipes. And I actually had a monthly column for the EADT magazine. I really enjoyed everything I was doing.”
And then in 2013. Five years in. A bombshell. Breast cancer. At just 46.
Belinda had been seen for recurring cysts before, and was no stranger to lumps and bumps, but the diagnosis of a Stage 2 oestrogen exacerbated tumour came as a true shock. She had no family history of breast cancer in a blood relative, and despite her nursing background, it was a disease she’d had no real contact with.
Belinda went straight into surgery where they found cells in her lymph glands. This led to further operations, seven months of chemotherapy and daily radiotherapy for five weeks, ending just before Christmas.
“I really didn’t know I was going to make it,” she says. “The people I had known that had it had died. It was dreadful coming to terms with your own mortality.
“As a nurse I was shocked that I didn’t actually recognise the reality of what to do when threatened with death. Without personal experience you can’t fully understand the sheer terror of going through it.”
But, adds Belinda, she is a positive person by nature.
“I thought ‘I’m not standing for this’, ‘I’m not going to die from this’.”
At the time Millie and Sam were at a critical point in their educational careers, with GCSEs and A Levels on the horizon. Belinda’s parents moved up from Devon to be close to her, and also because her father had Parkinsons.
She found herself in the ‘sandwich’ generation. A woman caught between caring for growing children and aging parents. And then there was the cancer to deal with on top.
“I literally put a line through my diary at that point and said I could only look after myself. I just had to do that to get through it. I look back and, although I don’t know why I got breast cancer, I do think stress plays a huge part in it and massively affects your body. You have to be resilient. I was doing a lot for other people.
“I literally thought, if I don’t stay upbeat and look after myself I won’t get through it. Depression is a huge part of cancer, and a lot of people with breast cancer have depression. I really fought. I ticked off the rounds of chemo and, although I felt rotten for two weeks in every three, on the third I’d rise like Lazarus, wake up, and have an amazing week before it all started again.”
Belinda says her children and husband were her lifeline and that the worry they hid from her was “quite shocking”. Alex lost three stone. But she also had a lot of support from friends, and knew exactly who to turn to for the right support at the right time.
Finishing treatment at Christmas felt like a new beginning, with Belinda gaining more strength every day, practising yoga, and doing lots of calming activities to keep stress at bay...but the worry was never far away.
“People think as soon as you’ve had that final treatment life is back to normal. But that’s far from the truth. You live in constant fear of the cancer coming back. Most of the time you’re able to shelve it, but when it comes to the mammograms you become gripped by this awful fear.
“Hearing about people like poor Sarah Harding, and those people who’ve had it recurring...it scares you. But at the time I felt so glad to be alive and I was getting back on course again. I wanted to do some fundraising for research and decided to have an art exhibition in our home.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2014, over the course of a three day bank holiday weekend, Belinda and Alex transformed their home into a pop-up art gallery, where they raised a staggering £100,000, with artists donating 50% of their earnings and sculptors 30% to breast cancer charities.
It was, says Belinda, a satisfying and effective way of raising money. The thrill of an event. And the fact that those donating were going home with something tangible to remind them of their generosity.
Keen to keep the impetus up, Belinda looked for a venue outside her home, settling on Glemham Hall, and built up a team (now 10 people) to help her raise funds and create events, alongside upwards of 100 volunteers who are, she says “tremendous in their commitment and time”.
Beginning in Bredfield with 150 pieces of art and 50 sculptures, at its next outing, Art for Cure exhibited and sold around 1,000 artworks.
A favourite contributor of Belinda’s is national figurative artist Henrietta Dubrey.
“She does these fabulous, quite explicit, works of women and just understands Art for Cure. Despite the demands of her job she always delivers a beautiful collection. I’ve also been happy to see the development of artist Sarah Muir Poland. She started at her Walberswick studio and we found her work, loved it and started show it. She’s just had her first London show where she sold 44 paintings in an evening. She’s developing now as quite a big-name artist.”
There has been an Art for Cure exhibition every year since, except in 2020 – a disappointment after six months of planning. However Belinda did manage to organise the online Bloom exhibition during lockdown for Ipswich Hospital’s Blossom appeal, raising £70,000. Much more than she had expected.
More recently the Blue Sky exhibition raised £50,000, and there are high hopes for the final total from Feast.
One of the biggest things the fundraiser prides Art for Cure on is that all the money raised and donated is declared on the charity’s website.
“I think it’s just so important if people give money, that they know specifically where it’s spent. A big part of my role is to work closely with the big research centre Breast Cancer Now. There are a whole load of people there working on international projects.
“Instead of giving money into a fund we select which project we’d like to donate to, and make sure we’re aware of where the money is spent. It is a relatively small amount, but we’ve given half a million pounds to them and it’s really important our buyers can see the trail of money.”
One project at the charity that had a breakthrough recently, says Belinda, is a new drug to slow secondary breast cancer. “And it was so rewarding to think our events in some small way helped reach that result.”
Services in Suffolk are directly aided by Art for Cure too, largely at Ipswich Hospital, where Belinda says her nursing experience has been invaluable in meeting medical professionals and patients.
Something she’s especially interested in funding at the hospital is counselling.
“When you go through treatment,” she says, “it’s a rollercoaster. From the moment you’re diagnosed to when you’re discharged and picking the pieces of your life up. You may not have been at work for a while. There could be personal or family issues. There are the aspects of changes in your body to deal with.
“We want to help extend support to women getting their lives back on track, and living normally again, not living in fear of cancer. This year I’m excited that we’ve helped to fund a part-time breast cancer counsellor at the John le Vay centre. To have those personalities who understand and are there to phone up is so important. I’m very impressed at how they’ve been there for people during the Covid crisis.”
Art for Cure is also helping a new nutrition project with Debbie Taylor, who’s helping women who’ve gained wait through breast cancer treatment. Debbie’s already successful classes are focussed on healthy dietary habits, and the right things to eat after chemo.
“We funded a pilot group and the success was tremendous,” Belinda beams. “And we fund two exercise classes too. One in Felixstowe and one in Ipswich at local gyms, run by a specialist trainer with experience helping women who’ve been through surgery and find moving painful. It’s all these small things we’ve been so delighted to support.”
Another project Belinda is proud to be associated with via Art for Cure’s fundraising is Little Lifts, founded by Norwich resident Oa Hackett, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 28.
Oa’s scheme delivers boxes of comfort items to people going through chemo, with radiotherapy boxes now available too.
“They really do give women relief and care,” says Belinda. “And we’re thrilled to have donated just under £30,000 to help establish them as a charity.”
When she’s not hunting down artists for her exhibitions, Belinda likes nothing more than getting out on her bike. All in the name of charity, of course. In 2018, she and a team of nearly 40 cycling across Asia in aid of Art for Cure, raising £110,000.
The team, accompanied by resident artist Sarah Muir Poland, travelled 450km through Vietnam and Cambodia in what Belinda says was the ride of her life.
Because it has been. While she obviously wishes she’d never had breast cancer in the first place, Belinda can see the light through the dark, and all of the good that she’s done as a direct result of that fateful day in 2013.
“I do believe things happen in your life for a reason. If you can cope with them and be positive it makes such a difference. I was lucky with the support I had. My amazing husband and children got me through what was a challenging time.
“But I could not be happier now. I love meeting artists and finding art. I go all over the country to big art fairs and graduate shows. The best thing about Art for Cure is there are no rules about what to do next. We’re constantly evolving and constantly coming up with new ideas and surprising people. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
Belinda strongly wants to get the message across to all women, of all ages, that they should check their breasts regularly.
“I was too busy to have my lump checked immediately. I would sit in the bath and think ‘is it or isn’t it?’. There was a fear that it could be something. But it could have equally been nothing. Don’t let your life get so busy you neglect your health. Health is everything and with breast cancer your recovery is optimistic if you get an early diagnosis. Many women who’ve been through this are living long, healthy lives now because the treatment is so good. Please. Get checked.”