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Mon 17 Jul 2023

Meet Tracey Burke

Tracey Burke drove into an almost empty car park on an industrial estate near Caerphilly at the “crack of dawn” one dull and damp February morning this year.

She was there to view a tribute to her late mum, June, by special invitation of our Chief Executive, Judi Rhys.

As she parked up, with only her thoughts, Tracey felt anxious. Her beloved mum June had not long passed, and she was feeling emotional.

June, Cardiffian by birth, and her Irish-born husband John, were fundraising powerhouses for Tenovus, as the charity was known, back in the day.

They had dedicated their adult married lives to supporting the charity, even taking the risky move of re-mortgaging their family home with three young children to fund the cause.

June had grown up with Tenovus. Her father had been there at the start of the charity in 1943 and her mother’s volunteering spirit lives on in the fashion shows and buckets of our Friends of Tenovus Cancer Care (FoT) groups today.

June and John’s contributions to the charity were equally immense and impactful. Together, they Chaired, campaigned, and fundraised tirelessly for us.

Now, Tracey was parked up beside an artic lorry belonging to Tenovus Cancer Care. Looking like any other large lorry from the outside, it transforms into a warm and welcoming hospital-standard cancer treatment centre inside.

This was Mobile Support Unit (MSU) 3 where, in partnership, nurses deliver thousands of Chemotherapy, Immunotherapy, and Lymphoedema treatments every year. It was also our chosen place to pay our tribute to June, her memory living on in the four healing walls.

Greeted by Judi and our team, Tracey took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

“I almost had to take step back, recalls Tracey. I was scared to go inside, as I knew it was going to be an emotional moment.

Mum and dad lived for Tenovus, and the charity was such a massive part of all our lives. Tenovus was central to family life - we all lived and breathed it.

Inside, Tracey saw an explosion of leaves, standing out against the white of the wall in fluorescent lime green, ocean blue and a rusty orange. Together, they formed what looked like a tree of life, symbolic of hope, health, and healing.

Focusing on each leaf, all inscribed, she found the one dedicated to mum. It simply read: “June Burke, BEM, inspiring friend, and life-long campaigner for Tenovus Cancer Care. Never Forgotten”  

Tracey couldn’t hold back tears.

“It was emotional to see, but I knew straight away mum and dad would have loved it. It was just right and situated in the perfect place. It was the treatment of cancer, and the research, that mum and dad were determined to have an impact on. It became a real mission.

The Burke’s back story demonstrates the self-sacrifice of volunteers who have been the backbone of the charity since the start. Their legacy survives - not only in the charity’s archives - but the hearts of many they’ve supported, nurtured, and helped heal. 

Growing up, Tracey and her siblings, Sean, and Kevin, also fundraised for the charity, a third generation of young, ardent Tenovus Cancer Care supporters.

Tracey’s maternal grandfather, Paddy Ginn, was there at the start and his music teacher wife, Doris, set up the Cardiff Ladies FoT Committee with other wives of the early years. Disbanded in 2014, the committee lives on the spirit of our FoT’s today, and their sterling fundraising work in Welsh communities.

Tracey explains:

“When dad married mum in 1958, he “married” Tenovus, and all that came with it. Mum was passionate, all passed on from her parents, and that passion fundraising, raising awareness, and pioneering support for those with cancer.

I feel so proud my parents played such a big part in Tenovus’ history, along with all the other amazing fundraisers and volunteers over the decades.

As a nine-year-old, Tracey vividly remembers collecting money outside Cardiff’s big high street stores, especially when it was time to collect at rugby matches outside Cardiff Arms Park because “it was a lot more exciting.”

Tenovus Cancer Care was born during wartime Cardiff, forged by ten businessmen with a vision, drive, and big hearts. For eight decades, the charity has been helping and giving hope to people with cancer, as well as their loved ones. While the charity has grown and changed over the years, its dedication to supporting people in the heart of the community has remained constant.

June, a wartime baby, was initiated into fundraising early on, and that didn’t end until her early 80s, volunteering in our first high street shop in Cardiff’s Whitchurch Road from the time it opened until the Covid-19 pandemic shut up shop temporarily.

Dr John Francis Burke, life-long cancer campaigner and activist, published a paper on cancer awareness in 1964, and that was to be a game changer.

He was instrumental in the opening of the world renowned Tenovus Institute for Cancer Research, located at the University Hospital of Wales, and where scientists developed the breast cancer drug Tamoxifen, along with the world leading Cardiff Cervical Cancer Screening Programme of its time.

The Burkes’ work with Tenovus Cancer Care ran alongside operating a successful business, initially importing shell, porcelain, and tinned fruit from John’s native Ireland, and then branching out into printing and publishing.

John passed away in 2020, and June in summer 2022, but both left an indelible mark on the charity’s history.

Tracey, who is now a Welsh Government Board Member, says public service is part of her DNA. 

“Tenovus will always have a massive place in my heart, the charity was built on strong foundations, and as it celebrates its 80th year, I know staff and volunteers will continue to do all they can to support people affected by cancer.

Chief Executive Judi Rhys said:

“It was a privilege to accompany Tracey to our Mobile Support Unit, to see the tribute we placed there to her mum. We are so grateful to June for her life-long work to Tenovus.

As we celebrate our 80th year, it is only right to pay tribute to those who were there from the start, and who helped us grow into the charity we are today.

We might branch out, move with the times, and do things slightly differently, but the spirit of the Burke’s, and many more, will live on through future generations of fundraisers and volunteers in our communities.

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free Support Line is there for you. Just call 0808 808 1010