The Yorkshire charity Make A Dream is marking 21 years of helping sick and terminally ill children. Jayne Dawson talks to founder Francine Levin, who now has incurable cancer herself.
Imagine a woman with incurable cancer and I doubt you will come up with Francine Levin. For a start, she looks great: chic silver crop, elegant clothes, lovely skin. And she may be on morphine twice a day and a fistful of tablets throughout, but she is still very much in the midst of normal life.
On the day we meet she is returning clothes she has changed her mind about to Marks & Spencer, and she says that now that her illness has caused her to lose weight she can buy nice tops from Zara.
More than that, at 66 years old she is still working hard, taking a business call while we chat and, above all, still running her Make A Dream Charity.
But there it is. Cancer is a cruel disease and Francine is enduring her second encounter with it.
She has sat through the moment of diagnosis twice, lost her hair twice, and experienced countless bouts of chemotherapy, a treatment which is now ongoing for her.
And of course Francine has spent 21 years helping to improve the quality of life of children with incurable illnesses only now to find that she is in the same position herself.
She says: “My cancer has spread to my bones and my lymph nodes. It can’t be cured so it is a question of controlling it. I don’t ask about my prognosis. It is hard, but I think it is harder for my husband. He can’t control the situation, neither of us can. We just have to do as we are told.
“He never misses an appointment with me, but his life is all about me. It is always ‘how is Francine?’ and never ‘how is Stuart?’ My view is, I just want to plod along with my life.”
That life is a fascinating one. Francine, who also has a son, Marcus, 25, was something of a female trailblazer.
She grew up in Leeds, with Jewish parents who were the children of Russian immigrants, and attended Leeds Girls High School, but she left at the tender age of 14 to work as a shop assistant.
Her manageress was Helen Sykes, well known in Yorkshire and beyond for her successful independent fashion store, and, with her guidance, Francine discovered her talent for sales.
By the age of 21 she already had her own boutique in Lincoln, where her father also had fashion shops, and was doing well, but then life took a different turn.
“I had been going out with this guy in Leeds for years and we were planning to get married, but then he said he wasn’t sure. I discovered I felt relieved.
“I felt free and up for adventure so I said to my friend ‘let’s go live in Australia’ but she would only go as far as London.”
So began Francine’s two decades in the capital where she had a ball, rode the wave of the yuppie boom and taught herself the property business, with which she and Stuart are still involved.
“I started off in newspaper sales for the Evening Standard and worked my way up to running an advertising department. I was paid good money, I had the gift of the gab, I was good at selling and teaching others to sell, and life was great.
“Then I discovered property and realised I could make the same on one house as I would have had to work three or four years to earn. Being in property in London at that time gave you the Midas touch.”
The party seemed set to go on and on – until her father died: “It hit me like a rocket, I adored my father.”
Back in Leeds for the funeral, Francine, then a single woman of 39, was introduced to Stuart. By the age of 41 she was a married mother-of-one.
“I was introduced to a good, kind, reliable man and we started going out. I thought that if he asked me to marry him I would do it, and he did.
“Stuart and I had uncannily similar backgrounds – his parents were also the children of Russian immigrants and he had left school at 14 too. His mother and father were good, decent people, like my parents. Stuart would tell me stories about his Russian alcoholic grandfather, but I never met him.
“But I had a hard time adjusting to being married at first. Everything had changed for me, I had moved home, married and very quickly become pregnant. Stuart and Marcus are my life now, but it was a massive adjustment back then.
“But we have a good marriage and always have had, we are very good friends as well as husband and wife. Without Stuart I don’t know what I would have done.”
Back at the beginning of the marriage, Francine set about teaching the property business to Stuart, who had previously run a hosiery business, and the two set up Cube letting agency which they still run today.
But when Marcus was only four years old, Francine, then 45, discovered a lump in her breast.
“At first I wasn’t really aware of the severity of what I had been diagnosed with. It only hit me when the oncologist said I had a 50:50 chance of survival.
“I had a mastectomy and a reconstruction and took Tamoxifen for five years. After that I was judged to be in remission.”
But Francine’s cancer treatment had opened her eyes to a situation she had not realised existed.
“I was in a queue for chemotherapy and there were children queuing with me. Until that point, I don’t think I had even realised that children suffered from cancer. That sounds very naive but it’s true, you could have written on a postage stamp what I knew about cancer.
“Afterwards, I was talking about those children to Stuart and I said it would be marvellous to be able to make a dream come true for them.”
That was 1993 and, never one to let the grass grow, Francine got to work setting up the charity immediately.
“Stuart was friends with Freddie Starr, who was a very big name back then. He offered to do a free show and with the proceeds we started the charity.”
Twenty one years later Make A Dream has helped hundreds of desperately ill children, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“A lot of them are recommended to us via social services. After that, whatever they ask for we will do our best to fund.
“Children request to go on trips, to have their rooms redecorated, to have a new computer game.
“Often we arrange for them to visit Disneyland Paris, or they go to London and see the sights or a show. The children travel with their family and siblings, so the experience is shared with people they love.”
The work of Make A Dream is shared between four people: Francine and Stuart and Susie and Derek Taylor, who together make up the committee.
“At the time I was setting it up someone warned me that cancer patients often feel like they want to give something back and don’t realise how much they are taking on, but it hasn’t been like that for me. I have never had any second thoughts.”
The main fundraising event is an annual dinner at Elland Road in Leeds with guest speakers. That one night, held each November, brings in around £60,000 with the aid of sponsors and patrons include celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, comic Ruby Wax and businesswoman Jan Fletcher.
This year the event will feature stars of the BBC’s The Apprentice Nick Hewer and Dr Margaret Mountford, and impressionist Alistair McGowan.
Over time, with work, her charity and continued good health, life gradually regained its balance for Francine – but then the worst happened.
“After cancer, your confidence gradually builds up again. From thinking about it every day you start to think about it every other day, and then only every week. Eventually the checks tail off and life starts to feel normal again.
“This happened to me, but then an existing back problem seemed to get worse. I had always had back problems but one day I got the fiercest pain I have ever experienced, when the doctor tried to examine me I screamed, which is unlike me.”
That was in 2010, and the cancer was discovered to have reappeared. It was also the year that Francine’s mother died.
“I was glad it didn’t happen while my mum was alive, it was a blessing that she didn’t have to hear. It is not the fact that it has come back, but that it is incurable, all I can do now is try to control it.”
To that end, Francine has put herself through various forms of chemotherapy , some of them extremely aggressive.
Now she is on a new type and takes it in tablet form for two weeks, and then has a week off.
But still the charity work continues. Last year, in recognition of her achievements, Francine was nominated for the Pride of Britain Awards. She is proud of her picture taken with David Cameron, her hair at that point long and dark.
This summer she attended the Queen’s garden party, a chic dark wig framing her face under a stylish hat.
And there is the future to think about. Marcus runs a company called Get Baked, and this year will open a restaurant near Leeds University.
“I am so proud of Marcus, he means everything to me,” she says.
“My cancer is like a floating cloud that I can see in the distance. It is getting nearer and nearer, but I still have a lovely life. What can I say? No matter how many treatments I try this won’t go away but as long as I have quality of life I am okay. I fight it with all my strength and I will just keep going as long as I can.”
The Make A Dream charity dinner will be held on November 6 at Leeds United Conference Centre. Visit www.makeadream.org for more information.
The charity is also seeking new sponsors. Visit the website for contact details.