Working with Cancer

It was probably the most important bath I’ve ever had. Why? Well because it was while I was soaking away, floating in the steamy scented water and wondering if my hair would ever grow back after chemotherapy, that I thought of the idea of helping people return to work after cancer.

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I was an HR Director for a FTSE 100 company. I had just returned to (almost) full time work after surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy but it suddenly struck me that at no point during my 6 months of cancer treatment had anyone treating me mentioned the word ‘work’. No-one had even asked me in more than a cursory way what I did for a living.  I had been treated at 5 hospitals by 4 consultants and countless doctors, nurses and assorted others but no-one had any idea what I did outside the hospital walls. Their concern was to treat me and send me back out into the world – but to what? And so the journey began…

It began with 4 of us – all ex HR Directors who’d had cancer – who in 2006 founded Working With Cancer and started something that went on to become a major part of the government’s National Cancer Survivorship Initiative and formed the basis of major campaigns run by Cancerbackup and now Macmillan.

A few stats. Of the 2 million people in the UK currently living with cancer, over 700,000 are of working age. About 500,000 are estimated to be working full or part-time. But less than 2% access specialist return to work services and over 75% don’t get Occupational Health or any support linked to work or employment. The total loss in productivity of cancer survivors unable to return to paid work in England, in 2008, was £5.3bn. These figures are expected to at least double by 2030.

But what’s so important about work? Isn’t surviving cancer a good reason to stop work and do something else while there’s time? Well some people can’t continue working and some choose not to, but for many cancer survivors, work offers an important lifeline back to normality and wellbeing. It provides financial independence. It provides a sense of purpose and creates structure and order in daily routines. More importantly in my view, there is increasing evidence that it aids recovery.

Although many employers are sympathetic towards employees who have cancer and try to be supportive, many do or say the wrong thing simply because they don’t have the knowledge or information about what they should do. For example, less than 50% – too many – are aware that cancer survivors are protected by Disability Discrimination and that they should therefore carefully consider adjustments to help the individual return to work. Sometimes employers are too embarrassed or personally affected to deal effectively with an employee, and occasionally they find it all too much of a hassle! Thank goodness there aren’t too many of these.

I am now self-employed and providing coaching support to employers and employees to help employees get back to work, remain in work or get a job after a cancer diagnosis. That support also includes carers trying to combine work with caring for someone with cancer. Follow my blog as I start a new journey, with new challenges but (I hope) good outcomes.


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.

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