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Civil Service

Personal disability stories: Part 7 – Seonaid's story

Philip Rutnam, Perm Secretary for the Department for Transport and Civil Service Disability Champion
Philip Rutnam, Permanent Secretary for the Home Office, and Civil Service Disability Champion

Many of you will be familiar with my ongoing series of personal disability stories.

Alongside mental health, a commonly recognised disability that people rarely talk about is cancer.

Statistics show that 1 in 2 of us is diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime and nearly 1 million working-age people have a diagnosis of cancer. It is important, therefore, that we tackle the taboo that surrounds talking about cancer, and do all we can to ensure that people are supported and feel able to continue working, should they wish to do so, or return to work after treatment.

I am grateful and pleased to introduce Seonaid Webb, who will tell you about her experience of cancer, and why she has set up the Home Office Working Through Cancer network. She is joined by Chris Green and Phil Hill, who will share their experiences of living with cancer, as a carer and a line manager, respectively.

Seonaid's story

Black and white portrait image of Seonaid Webb
Seonaid Webb

After a cancer diagnosis in 2016, I wrote about my experience on an internal Home Office blog. The mental health implications of physical illnesses are often overlooked, but I have never felt more scared and anxious than I did during the early months post-diagnosis.

I was contacted by more than a hundred colleagues who wanted to share their personal journeys as well as challenges they have faced in the workplace after their own cancer diagnoses.

I realised there was a gap in targeted support, in line manager confidence when it comes to managing people with cancer, and in support for primary carers of someone with cancer (the ‘silent sufferers’). That is why I launched the Home Office Working Through Cancer network in September to support people at work who are impacted by cancer. It is a network for staff, created and managed by staff.

The network is run by more than 70 volunteers and focuses on three key aims:

  1. Buddy groups – for individuals, carers and line managers – offering the opportunity to talk to someone who 'gets it' and who can empathise with the significant challenges being faced
  2. A training session co-designed with Macmillan Cancer Support  to increase line managers’ confidence in supporting members of staff through their diagnosis and treatment 
  3. A dedicated intranet page – offering a one-stop-shop for advice, support, links to HR policies and training sessions, and case studies of good practice

Home Office Working Through Cancer logo

Chris Green and Phil Hill are members of the Working Through Cancer network and offered to share their experiences.

Chris says:

Portrait image of Chris Green
Chris Green

I am the father of two and I lost my wife to cancer four years ago.  

Supporting someone living with cancer is very challenging, but going to work helped me maintain normality in my life at a time of great uncertainty. Colleagues can be a great source of support and comfort, and I really appreciated the support close colleagues gave me, but I would have liked a greater understanding and more discussion with some colleagues and line managers about what I was dealing with. I would like staff to realise that they are not alone and that there are colleagues who can help them.

Phil says:

Head and shoulders portrait image of Philip Hill
Philip Hill

Peter passed away following an 11-month battle with cancer. He was a friend and a member of my team, and I found being able to draw on the advice of friends and colleagues very helpful. It was all new territory for me, but it was reassuring to speak to people who had lived with cancer and peers who had line-managed someone through a serious illness. There was some really good HR advice, but parts of the wider process were clunky and time-consuming.

One thing that worked well was to organise a regular schedule of visits. Peter’s father recently told me how much the visits from his friends and colleagues raised Peter’s spirits and how the family valued them.

I think the Working Through Cancer network will give practical and emotional support, reassurance, understanding and hope. This network is one way in which I can help keep Peter’s memory alive, something that is very important to Peter’s family.

Graphic with legend 'A great place to work'I am very grateful to Seonaid, Chris and Phil for sharing their different experiences. They show that cancer can touch our lives in many ways, whether as someone who has been diagnosed, as a carer for a loved one, or as a line manager or colleague of a team member with a cancer diagnosis.

Cancer can be difficult to talk about, but we can only change that by talking openly and supporting each other. I am extremely proud that the Home Office is host to such a great new network. If you have a similar network or activity in your department, please tell me about it by posting a comment below.

If you are looking for support, Macmillan offers a range of excellent resources to support both managers and employees, and you can find out more on the Macmillan at Work home page. You can also read about a personal account of cancer in Rupert McNeil’s recent blog, where he shared Kirstie’s experience of breast cancer and the menopause.

Philip Rutnam


Disability Confident scheme logoFriday, 2 November is the anniversary of Disability Confident, a government-backed scheme to support employers in making the most of the talents disabled people bring to the workplace, helping them to progress and thrive in their careers.

All government departments are signed up to the scheme, so look out for ways in which you and your team can get involved and foster a culture where employees with a disability can ask for support in the workplace and be confident that they will get it.

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  1. Comment by Maj Mandy Islam posted on

    Many thanks for picking up on this very worthwhile subject. To introduce, I am the Chair of the Chronic conditions and Disability (CanDiD) network in the Ministry of Defence, policy lead for the Defence People with a Significant Illness (DPSI) project and author of @CancerWarriorDiaries on Facebook and Instagram @Cancer_Warrior_Diaries. I have been living and working through a rare and incurable prognosis since Jul 15 and just wanted to share that I am here for all.

    Very best wishes.


  2. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you for sharing your very moving stories.