Working with Cancer


A few days ago I took part in two events concerning cancer and mental health. You might well ask – what has that got to do with cancer and returning to work?  My response to that is that it has a great deal to do with cancer.

When people think about the side effects of cancer they tend to focus on the physical impact but the psychological impact can be as great if not greater. The emotional and psychological impact of being confronted by a diagnosis of cancer can be devastating.  For those who have cancer work offers an important lifeline back to normality and well-being, but many cancer survivors:

  • Feel abandoned after treatment
  • Fear recurrence – every ache and pain causes anxiety
  • Feel insecure and vulnerable
  • Are self-conscious about physical changes
  • Get no support to deal with the psychological impact of cancer – clinicians and employers focus on physical recovery
  • Are unwilling to admit to or discuss any of these issues for fear of the consequences.

As someone told me just today, you know you should be happy to be ‘in remission’ but you feel guilty when you are not.

So what’s the solution? Getting back to work is one way of mitigating some of the anxieties cancer brings because it requires the individual to think about normal, external, objective issues – not their cancer. Some organisations set up buddying schemes which enable individuals to support each other and understand that they are not alone in their fears. And coaching, sometimes counselling, can also make a significant difference in that it gives an individual time to reflect on what has been lost but also on what has been gained. No-one is any less a person for having had cancer – many are stronger because of it and even find that life becomes richer and more fulfilling, but it’s not an easy journey to make and too often the medical profession provides little or no advice or support.


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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