Working With Cancer: Changing the Conversation


A powerful and inspirational insight from Barbara Wilson, the founder of the organisation. We wish you and WWC all the best, Barbara

I WAS diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. It was a shock but not a surprise. My mother and father had died of cancer – I was 15 when my father died of pancreatic cancer – and my mother’s sister Barbara after whom I am named, died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 36. But of course, you never think you will get it…

At the time of my diagnosis I was working as a Human Resources Director for a FTSE 100 company in the City. While I was off sick, I was treated pretty well but, on my return, things started to go wrong and I couldn’t work out why. Some people were very welcoming and supportive but many others were surprised to see me back at work – they imagined I would retire or ‘want to spend more time with my family’!

Looking different…

Others avoided talking to me – it was as if I had some terrible social disease.  It didn’t help that I was wearing a wig and that I had lost my eyebrows and eyelashes. I made every possible effort to look as good as possible but there was no escaping the fact that I looked different and let’s face it, a bit weird. Some colleagues who had been covering my job in my absence clearly resented my return. My boss was convinced I was no longer committed to my job mainly because I tried to hide my exhaustion, was lethargic and distracted by myriad side effects, but at the time insisted I was perfectly fine. I really didn’t help myself or the situation, but there again neither did they.

It struck me then that there was a real absence of support for people like me to return to work successfully. I searched the web in vain and found just one organisation which provided help with hair and makeup post cancer. That was all there was! In the end and after many trials and tribulations, and with a huge amount of support from the School for Social Entrepreneurs, I set up Working With Cancer (WWC) to support anyone affected by cancer to return to work, remain in work or find work. We are currently the only UK organisation that does this.

Returning to work

Let’s be clear: for many but not all of us, returning to work either to our old job or to a new one is a milestone in our recovery. It signals a welcome and important return to normality, financial independence and ultimately recovery. Working With Cancer facilitates and encourages that process.

There are two quotes that encapsulate many of my thoughts and ideas about the impact of cancer on all lives including mine. The first person I’d like to quote is Peter Harvey, a 

consultant clinical psychologist, who writes:  

Once heard, the diagnosis of cancer can never be forgotten. Whatever your prognosis, whatever your hopes, whatever your personality, the second that you know that you have cancer your life changes irrevocably.’

The second quote is from Viktor Frankl who was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. He survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim. He writes in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

‘It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.’

Cancer changes your life and although you might ask yourself every day ‘why me’ – it’s the most obvious question and an entirely rational one – the most cathartic approach in my view is to set some goals for a meaningful future and to take responsibility for fulfilling that future even if it is limited by continuing ill health or other factors. 

You may not be able to do that for a while because cancer typically consumes all mental space and energy. You focus on getting through treatment and the future only exists as ‘the end of treatment’, not as the beginning of anything. 

Life wrenching

WWC’s purpose is to ‘change the conversation about work and cancer’. To help individuals with a cancer diagnosis and working carers for those with cancer to make sense of the life wrenching experience of a diagnosis and treatment and to find a meaningful way forward.

We build confidence by helping people to understand that despite the cancer they are undiminished. We help them ‘reset’ their lives both at work and outside of work; to put their cancer in context, to appreciate their strengths, to reconnect with their values, to consider how they want to live their lives in the future, and last but not least to have some fun and experience the sheer joy of being alive!

Barbara Wilson

Barbara Wilson

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Pink Ribbon is the new global charity seeking to make breast cancer-related deaths are a thing of the past. It focuses on political lobbying and campaigning, and the showcase Pink Ribbon awards. Global MD Gerard Dugdill

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