Working with Cancer

I’ve just been asked to do an interview about Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy in the context of working in an industry where appearance is everything. As Hadley Freeman wrote today in the Guardian, she has done something extraordinary and brave.  That doesn’t make the experience of ordinary women any less important and difficult and there’s a part of me which hates all the attention she is getting for doing something countless other women have and will do but  whose bravery has not been recognised.  However, I can’t help but think that being in the public eye makes it so much worse.

Thank goodness I’ve never had to deal with the kind of surgery AJ has had to undergo so I can only imagine some of the emotional and physical issues she must be confronting and which she will continue to deal with for years to come.

Never mind the lingering fear that she may still get cancer or that she may have passed the gene on to her children.  How do you deal with curious paparazzi who, when the sun comes out in California, Cannes or wherever – and it does that a lot in those places –  only want to focus their cameras on your chest albeit you have one of the most beautiful faces in the world?

I understand that Angelina has kept her nipples and had full breast reconstruction – I’m sure her new boobs are the best you can buy. But she knows and now we know they are not real, and although many women have implants these days, these are more than just implants and she must still be going through a huge sense of loss as well as some concern about what the future will hold.

When I had breast cancer in 2005 all I had to worry about was losing my hair but I found that to be absolutely traumatic – far more so than I ever expected. My hair had never been great but it was an essential part of who I was, as were my eyelashes and eyebrows.  When I lost them all I was bereft and although I knew they would grow back I still wondered occasionally whether they would.  I had a wig made but even then social outings were fraught with anxiety about whether people would realise I was wearing a wig, and if it was very windy I didn’t want to go out at all.  Going back to work was a major ordeal; appearances really matter in the City especially doing a high profile role in a largely male organisation – so how much worse to be a film star where it’s your looks that get you work in the first place

But for all that there are advantages and opportunities. For some years, Angelina has been redefining herself in terms of the films she has made and the charitable work she is doing. This announcement will help her continue this journey, to be so much more than a film actress, and win her much greater respect.




Barbara Wilson

BARBARA WILSON, founder of Working with Cancer, is a senior HR professional with almost 40 years’ experience. Her previous roles were Group Head of Strategic HR at Catlin Group Ltd, Deputy Head of HR at Schroders Investment Management, and prior to that Chief of Staff to the Group HR Director at Barclays. Before joining Barclays she was a senior management consultant at Price Waterhouse. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Barbara set up a group called ‘Working with Cancer’. The group was the first to develop guidelines on work and cancer for HR professionals, line managers, employees and carers. From 2008 to 2010 she chaired a major part of the NHS/Macmillan 5-year Cancer Survivorship strategy, developing ‘work and cancer’ support tools for employees, employers and clinicians. She continues to work as a volunteer with Macmillan Cancer Support and speaks about ‘work and cancer’ at various conferences and events. Barbara trained as a coach at Ashridge Management College and has a history degree from Cambridge University. She is married with two sons and lives in Surrey.

One Response to Angelina

  1. Catriona Catriona

    Hi Barbara

    It certainly is a double edge sword for anyone regularly in the press when some personal trauma befalls them and making them suddenly as human as the rest of us.

    Whether we like it or not, they do get loads of attention, both good and bad, and I think hightlighting health conditions via celebrities in general can only be for the good. Not only does it make individuals think more about their own health, but in many cases it brings an ‘acceptability’ to a condition and allows what were formerly ‘taboo’ topics to be tackled openly and honestly.

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