In 1993, Jill Miller was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her experience of the lack of emotional support available to people going through cancer, particularly those who couldn’t afford to pay, left her determined to make a difference. The following year, she installed a second phone line in her home to offer support to women suffering from breast cancer and launched Positive Action on Cancer (PAC). PAC became We Hear You (WHY) in 2016 and now provides 115 counselling sessions each week for children, young people and adults affected by cancer or any life threatening condition.
WHY’s Director Melissa Hillier (2015 to 2022) said:
“Jill was a lady of considerable inner strength. Her kindness and consideration for others was huge and she touched and enriched so many lives, sharing her experience and vast knowledge, whilst always saying that this was bigger than her, and WHY is only one small part in her continuing gift to the community. Her ability to live with cancer, work with it, learn from it and continue to grow as an individual in a situation that many would find unbearable, was both humbling and truly inspiring.
Her personal support to me when my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer was so very helpful, we learnt a lot from her experiences, and I feel very blessed to have known her.
Jill’s legacy runs through everything we do at WHY. Her values of helping people and ensuring our service is free to anyone affected by cancer is very much at the heart of our offer”
WHY’s Chair of Trustees and former PAC staff member Anne Montague said:
“I met Jill many years ago when I first came to volunteer as a counsellor and I was bowled over by her sheer conviction that a service like this was what cancer patients and their families needed. It’s largely thanks to Jill’s vision, tenacity and absolute dogged determination that we are here today and that many thousands of patients, carers and family members have had the chance to be supported through the experience of cancer and beyond. We were so pleased Jill was able to join us for our conference on 19th October and celebrate our 25th anniversary and all that the charity has achieved. She was very proud too, but typically full of praise for others. When we sat together recently, reminiscing about the early days, she said to me ‘whatever you do Anne, don’t say it was all down to me. I could never have done it without the support. There have been and still are some truly dedicated people working for the charity, too many to be mentioned. The counsellors, the fundraisers, the staff and the volunteers. They are the glue that sticks charities together, and I thank each and every one of them for keeping my dream alive.”
Jill Miller: 1944 - 2019
On the 19th April 1993 (my husband's birthday) I discovered a lump in my breast. My arm brushed against my breast as I turned in bed, and there it was. A lump the size of a walnut. Fear was instant. Things moved quickly, dream-like. Doctor, consultant, a negative response to a biopsy, but no clear diagnosis at first. Swinging from hope to insurmountable, earth-shattering terror, I managed to survive the three-and-a-half week wait for admittance to hospital. I tried to look for some support, but counselling through the local surgery, at that time, took weeks to access. The cost of private counselling: prohibitive.
It felt hopeless until my friend Julia offered me time every day for the weeks-in-waiting when I could hardly raise my head from the fear. My family were totally supportive, particularly my 17-year-old daughter who was at home during this time. Reassurance from them came in bucket loads, but my fear was immovable. The one highlight was my days being planned for me by my daughter. Nice outings, swims together, times when we laughed uproariously at the daftest of things. She was amazing, my rock, but lacked support for herself, which left me with feelings of guilt years later.
Every time I raised the possibility of death, my husband and daughter tried their best to discount the fears. It didn't work. I wanted to explore my mortality. I needed to talk about the possibility that this cancer could kill me. I wanted someone outside of the family that could listen to the fears that paraded around during the dark nights when terror kept poking me awake. I felt hopeless, and fairly negative about the future, until a friend offered me time every day for the weeks-in-waiting when I could hardly raise my head from the fear...Julia, my friend became my counsellor. She took me to the edge of the precipice, and held my hand while I looked in.
It was more than a bonus to have someone I trusted that could accompany me on the most terrifying journey of my life. To stay close and gently encourage me to visit every dark corner, every pot-hole, climb the rock-face and still be there with me while I stared at the worst-case scenarios. Following every bleak visit to what felt like hell, she put me back together so that I could face each day with renewed strength. Because counselling worked and was a life-saver in my darkest moments I knew that, if I survived, I wanted to support other women who were going to find themselves in a similar situation.
At the time my eldest daughter was out of the country, travelling. It was a struggle to decide whether to contact her. For a while I decided not to, but was persuaded, by a friend, to contact her, following my mastectomy, in case someone else told her. I made the call from hospital. The most heartbreaking call I’d ever had to make. Long distance makes people seem so small and vulnerable. The conversation was difficult, punctuated by sobs on both sides of the world. Fortunately, we ended on an upbeat note. She was on the doorstep a couple of days later and we fell into each other's arms.
The idea of a telephone helpline, initially, was firmly in my mind before I went into hospital. I spoke about it to my family and to a woman I met on my hospital ward, who agreed to support me. And she did support me. I could not have done it without her support. Veronica Peters secured the building , which became the focal point, and main counselling centre of the charity PAC.
So many people played an important role during this time. It was tough and without incredible goodwill and support from so many people, I may have thrown in the towel. However, the thought of my terror in those early days, and the terror other women, diagnosed with cancer, may have been facing kept me going. The support of the early management committee, who became the first trustees was vital. Compiled of friends, acquaintances, a local GP, a breast cancer nurse, all of them volunteering hours and hours of their time for the good of this project in the community. Unforgettable.
My breast-cancer diagnosis was in 1993. The telephone help-line was launched in September 1994 and became a registered charity in November 1995. The biggest change came in 1999. At the time, we had been allocated a small room at Singer & Son’s, in the centre of town, by the then director Richard Dredge. Tricia Greenwood, a qualified, professional counsellor volunteered at the charity. Tricia was a gift. After some time, and learning how counselling had supported me personally, she suggested a straw poll to establish whether we remain a telephone helpline or whether a professional counselling service would be a well judged change. The straw poll took place in the library, and by local consensus, and the agreement of the trustees, the charity started to plan a free professional counselling service for women affected by cancer. Tricia was a brilliant co-worker who I trusted unreservedly. It was Tricia's incentive and hard work that made the initial, vital, change. Without her it would have taken much longer. The next stage was advertising for qualified, professional counsellors, and the rest is history. Tricia will always have my gratitude for her huge input, and the gratitude of many people she supported on the way.
There have been some very dedicated people working for PAC, too many to mention. There is always the fear of mentioning names in case someone gets left out. They know who they are. Volunteers have changed over the years, although one or two remained for the long haul. Volunteers are undoubtedly the glue that sticks charities together. Without them charities would not succeed in the same way. I retired from the post of Founder CEO in 2008, at which point Mary Taylor became director. Mary started work at the charity when Tricia left. She accomplished much at PAC, taking responsibility for setting essential polices in place, working tirelessly, often after office hours, to provide more robust working policies, for counsellors and health professionals. Following years of commitment to PAC, Mary retired in 2015.
My thanks and appreciation to the current staff. Counsellors, fundraisers, and the new director for keeping my dream alive and moving it forward.
My thanks to the wonderful community of Frome for taking the charity to its heart. For its ongoing fundraising and support, enabling the charity to make a difference to people's quality of life by continuing to provide its free, professional counselling service.