Student Spotlight: Working with Cancer

Meet Barbara, Founder of Working with Cancer

For almost 40 years I was convinced I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur.  Other people did that and most of them seemed to be a bit mad! My dad had been one of sorts and look where it had got him!  He ran a small leather goods business for many years and was constantly worrying about not earning enough money to support us. He had a nervous breakdown when I was a few months old and never really recovered.

So, after university, I pursued a pretty successful career in large or medium sized companies as a loyal employee, specialising in HR, which I enjoyed but wasn’t terribly fulfilling.  Why did I change my mind and set up my own business?  Well, I got cancer – in that sense, heaven help me, I did follow the family’s lead; my dad died of pancreatic cancer when I was 15 and my mum died of bowel cancer in 1993. My aunt Barbara (who I’d been named after) had died of Hodgkins’ Lymphoma at the age of 36.  Getting cancer didn’t surprise me – in a way I was expecting it – but for me it hasn’t been about endings; it has been about new beginnings…

My illness followed a standard but gruelling pattern. I was diagnosed (with breast cancer) in March 2005 and had 3 lots of surgery, chemotherapy (yes I temporarily lost my hair and my sense of humour too), and radiotherapy over a 6 month period.  I stayed at 5 different hospitals, had 3 consultants and saw more clinicians than I care to remember. I had more time off for all of this than I did for my two pregnancies. What really annoyed me however, was that over the 6 months not one person ever asked me about my job, whether I was working through treatment, or  how I was coping with my job – yet my job was my life. So I muddled through returning to work as best I could, collapsing from exhaustion every evening as soon as I got home and not telling anyone at work in case they thought me a ‘wimp’ or ‘past my best’.  And then one day whilst I was taking a long hot bath I had a true ‘eureka’ moment.  It struck me that neither I nor others should have to muddle through in this way, that there should and could be more information and one-to-one support for people like me.

Realising after one or two conversations that I was onto something, I got in touch with a few friends who had also had cancer and we set up a small group called ‘Working with Cancer’ to help people affected by cancer to return successfully to work. Cancerbackup (now part of Macmillan Cancer Support) took up our cause and we developed the first guidelines on work and cancer for HR professionals, line managers, employees and carers. One thing led to another and I soon became actively involved in developing the NHS/Macmillan 5-year Cancer Survivorship strategy, chairing a  team of people from all walks of life developing ‘work and cancer’ support tools for employees, employers, carers and clinicians.

When I left my last job in December 2012, I realised that there was and still is a lot to do around work and cancer. For example, although over 80% of people who are working when diagnosed with cancer want to remain in work, almost 60% have to change their job or give up work altogether. In 2008 the cost to the economy was estimated at £5.3bn. That’s a lot of money!! So, after lots of conversations with colleagues, friends and family, and  I decided to set up a business offering coaching to employees with cancer and training to their employers. And then my world suddenly changed again….

I bumped into an old friend, Paul McLintic, from the days when I had worked as a management consultant at Price Waterhouse.  We met for a coffee near London Bridge one evening and he told me about the SSE – I’d never heard of it or knew anything about social enterprises. He was becoming a mentor for the SSE, on his way to an evening meeting, and suggested I tag along to find out more. What a revelation – exciting place, lovely people, great values and attitudes. I was amazed and enthralled and so wanted to be a part of it.

Getting onto the programme has been a humbling experience.  I am sitting alongside some truly inspirational people who are far more talented than me, but what is immediately noticeable having worked in the City for almost 15 years is the enormous warmth and support people give each other which just doesn’t exist in those glittering palaces over the river – our blessing, their loss.

So what am I offering people?  I provide a number of services – you have to be flexible and follow the market –  but the one I’m most proud of because it’s a new service is one-to-one coaching for individuals to help them transition from being a cancer patient to becoming themselves again. I also coach wives and partners – that’s a new service too.

I provide practical support about the effects of treatment, coping with fatigue, reasonable adjustments and so on, but in addition I build confidence and help individuals think about their lives in a positive way. This is really important because after months of usually intensive treatment most cancer survivors feel depressed, vulnerable and suddenly abandoned by the clinicians. They have lost their sense of immortality, every ache of pain or twinge causes concern, and having a fuzzy brain after months of chemo doesn’t help. Clinicians tend to focus on the physical effects of cancer and rarely provide useful advice about returning to work – they seem to ignore the lives we lead outside of the hospital.  Occupational Health professionals tend to focus on hours of work and physical adjustments and rarely have the time to provide the emotional and psychological support those returning work also need.

The SSE is helping me to cope with all the important issues about setting up and developing my business – strategy, vision, finances, legal issues, marketing – but also providing much needed ‘tlc’ when I get the brush off from interested (but not that interested!) employers. Most importantly, I know they will help me succeed in providing the services that I know are needed and in attaining my goal of setting up a nation-wide network of coaches to work with me.


You can find out more by visiting:

Follow Barbara on twitter: @workwithcancer


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