What living with cancer taught me about the role of charity

In June 2013, I began work as the chief executive of a small charity. It was a steep though enjoyable learning curve. Then, four months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Like many of the 50,000-plus women who receive this news each year, the headlines were broadly positive. My chances of a full recovery were good, but I was facing an arduous year-long treatment programme.  The news was devastating from a personal perspective, but I decided to continue working, when possible, during treatment. Faced with so many terrifying uncertainties, I wanted to retain the structure, sense of purpose and creativity that work has always given me.

Living and working through cancer treatment is physically tough and psychologically demanding. I sought support online. Many cancer charities provide excellent information on treatment options, symptom control and the psychological impact of cancer on their websites; but my search revealed depressingly little advice or support for those who, like myself, were continuing to work. Many resources either assumed absence from work or provided the most basic “speak to your manager” type advice.

On some breast cancer charity websites targeting women, I found an over-emphasis on coping with altered appearance. Some sites were awash with advice on wig-wearing and scarf-tying. I cannot imagine that a site for male cancer sufferers would place such an emphasis on appearance. I was offered a course, run by a cancer charity, on how I could look and feel good during treatment. It all felt unhelpful, disheartening and sexist.

At the point of feeling worst during my chemotherapy, I was livid to see the no make-up selfie campaign explode on social media. The campaign, in which women tweeted pictures of themselves without make-up to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer, seemed to imply either a sacrifice in the act, or an attempt at fellowship with those undergoing chemotherapy. Both seemed offensive to me.

In the absence of any specific resources on working whilst undergoing treatment, I benefited hugely from non-managerial supervision. The support I received validated my choice to work and helped me in my struggle to find the balance between working and looking after myself.  Many thousands of those diagnosed with cancer are working-age adults. Sickness absence is costly for charities. Improved support for those who wish to work would help to reduce this financial burden. I am not suggesting that there is an expectation that those receiving cancer treatment work, but rather, that support and help is available for those who make a positive choice to do so.

Finally, coping with breast cancer and its aftermath is hard enough. I would like the information and resources available to reflect the diverse needs and interests of women living with the disease. Above all, the support available and the fundraising to support research and services should not perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes of women. And no, I don’t even like pink.

Catherine Hennessy is the chief executive of mental health charity icap