SOCCER star John Hartson has delivered a touching message of thanks to the devastated widow of Wales manager and former Leeds and Sheffield United player Gary Speed after she called on football fans to support his charity.
Speed, who was found dead at his home in Cheshire last month, was laid to rest today at a private funeral ceremony in North Wales.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the former Newcastle midfielder’s wife Louise called on people to make donations to two cancer funds - The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the John Hartson Foundation.
Former Arsenal striker Hartson, 36, set up his own charity after being diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer in 2009.
The father-of-five, who at one stage was on a life support machine, overcame the odds to make a remarkable recovery.
Today, he was the guest of honour at the official opening of a new £3 million specialist cancer centre, Maggies, in Swansea, to which his fund has given financial backing.
He said: “I am incredibly touched by Louise’s calls for people to back my charity. Gary was always very supportive of the foundation.
“He even played in a charity match to raise money for it on his own birthday as well as running the London marathon in aid of it. That’s the kind of man he was.
“It means an awful lot, especially as some of the money from my foundation will go towards the Maggies centre, which is a cause very close to my heart.
“I spoke with Gary’s father Roger last night to say I could not make it to the funeral because I was opening the centre here today - but my thoughts are with him and his family and I will be attending the memorial service in February.”
Following Hartson’s shock and sudden cancer diagnosis, he underwent several life-saving operations and endured more than 60 chemotherapy sessions.
He credited Singleton Hospital oncologist Dr Gianfilipo Bertelli with saving his life as well as helping him overcome the emotional rollercoaster by putting him touch with the cancer specialist support service Maggies.
“I used the interim centre before the new one opened,” he said. “It was great because the people at Maggies were incredibly supportive to me.
“Being a footballer, I was used to my body taking a bit of a battering, so I always felt I could cope with the operations and the chemotherapy. But the emotional side of it was incredibly tough. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m an emotional person - I even cry at watching EastEnders.
“It was a very tough time for me. One thing that still sticks in my mind is the bleeping noise the machine to administer the chemotherapy made - that sound will never leave me. I also remember my parents physically carrying me into Maggies on one occasion.
“The staff at Maggies do an amazing job, and help people with the psychological side of dealing with cancer.
“I know it is a cause close to the heart of Dr Bertelli, who was one of the key people who saved my life. I know there is nothing I could ever do to repay him, but I wanted to do something in return - and that’s why I decided to support Maggies through via my foundation.”
Maggies South West Wales was opened today by Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones, Hartson, Japanese Ambassador Keiichi Hayashi and the family of the late architect Kisho Kurokawa in a ceremony at Singleton Hospital to celebrate its completion.
The new facility will offer a range of services such as support groups, one-to-one counselling with clinical psychologists, nutrition workshops, relaxation sessions and creative arts therapy.
It replaces a temporary facility in the hospital grounds.
The centre has cost £3 million, with £1.5 million coming via fundraisers and the rest match-funded by the Welsh Government.
The first Maggies centre was opened in Edinburgh 15 years ago after being founded by Maggie Keswick Jenck who died of cancer, shortly before the first was completed.
Mr Jones said: “Fifteen years ago this year the first Maggies centre opened a long way from here, providing hope, support and guidance to those whose lives were forever changed after they were diagnosed with cancer.
“I am delighted that we are now welcoming this pioneering approach to cancer care here to Swansea.
“Around 6,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in South West Wales each year and this centre will be a valuable place of comfort and support to those affected by the disease.”
Maggies chief executive Laura Lee said people across the region had put a tremendous effort into fundraising to make the centre a reality.
“Today the local community should be proud of the lasting legacy they have created for the thousands affected by the devastating consequences of cancer,” she added.
“Maggies’ proven programme of support will act as an antidote to the isolation and despair of a cancer diagnosis.”
The free-to-use centre - whose design has been described a cross between the Big Brother house and an art gallery - offers a range of unique services such as nutritional classes, yoga and internet access.
The concept of the building was first drawn up in around 2007 by the late Japanese architect Dr Kisho Kurokawa and fellow designers Wendy James and Thore Garbers.
German-born Mr Garbers, 39, said: “We all met up for dinner in London and Kisho drew a few sketches on a napkin. Sadly he died a month later, but from that meeting we took some of his initial ideas and tried to bring them to life.
“The central idea was to create a place that was warm and inviting - as well as accessible.
“The results are fantastic, from the outside it has a lighthouse quality to it as light radiates from it at night.”
The centre is now the 10th Maggies facility in the UK and the first in Wales.
Mrs Jencks’ widower Charles, 72, who is an architect himself, said he was delighted with the design.
“Kisho Kurokawa’s design is based on his concept of a ‘cosmic whirlpool’ with one side embracing visitors and one side embracing the trees, rocks and water.
“I am delighted, as Maggie and Kisho would have been, to see this contact come to life through our first Japanese design for our first Welsh centre.
“We hope this centre will be a catalyst for other Maggies to be built in Wales, offering a range of practical, emotional and psychological support to people with cancer and their families and friends.”