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Interview with Rose Thompson, Founder of BME Cancer

Interview with Rose Thompson, Founder of BME Cancer

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Interview by Valentine Nkoyo 25th July 2017

So it’s lovely to have you Rose Thompson… finally we’ve got to do this! So to start, can you just tell me about yourself?

Well my name is Rose Thompson. I was the first person in my family to be born in the UK. Like most Caribbeans, my parents came here to help with the post war effort but also to give their families a better life financially. My father came over in the fifties, he was one of the first to come here and I was born in 1956 (I celebrated my sixth decade last year!).  I was born one of twins ( 7 minutes before my sister), my oldest sister getting to the UK aged just 15 months old, shortly before we were arrived.  Our family came to the country when a lot of Caribbeans in Nottingham were living in St Anns, so that was the first place we went to.

Upon arrival to the UK my father became a bus conductor.  My mother initially worked in a sewing factory and was an expert seamstress - previously she had trained in Kingston as a seamstress and set up a cooperative of six women in the Clarendon. Jamaica where she lived. - she’d always wanted to do that here. So once she’d started having children, when people didn't have the child care, she decided to start sewing at home. My father would help her to get the materials she needed and gradually word spread of how good she was as her work was of couture standard. She made most of the wedding and dresses for Nottingham people. My aunts then came over to the UK and two of them became nurses, some of the first NHS nurses. The NHS was launched in 1948 so they were struggling basically to deliver what they wanted to with a lot of people having been killed and injured in the war,  so they made an appeal to the commonwealth. When they came here they thought they would see the country like it was in films. I remember people thinking that the housing was factories, being surprised that toilets were outdoors and bathing facilities were the kitchen sink.

I realised the difficulties those nurses had in actually progressing in the UK. My aunt Jean Fairman’s name is on a plaque in the main corridors of city hospital for passing her nursing exam to a high standard. There were barriers at that time regarding career progression  - initially Caribbean nurses could only progress as far as State Enrolled as opposed to State Registered nurses. In the end both my aunt Jean and my aunt Olga moved from this country to progress because they were not really able to progress in the way that they wanted to.

That's my kind of history, but i didn't want to be a nurse. I had aspired to be a doctor.  So it all changed at secondary school, - you had to take an exam to pass your 11 plus. If you passed it you went to a grammar school and of you didn't you went to a comprehensive school. My twin sister had spent her days riding on bikes with the boys and climbing trees, so i passed and she didn't and that was devastating. For us it would be the first time we’d been separated. Some are trying to reintroduce grammar schools but I believe we all ought to have equal opportunities because i saw the impact of me going to a grammar school and her going to a comprehensive school on even just the kinds of jobs you could get, the exams you were allowed to take and your earning power afterwards. So i think everybody should have the opportunity because I think we have some very bright people who may not have the opportunities.

I was interested in a career in health but was put off being a nurse having witnessed the challenges my aunts aunts faced in career progression.  It was whilst I was at grammar school (there was no careers support service at that time) that I picked up a leaflet on occupational therapy, radiography and physiotherapy.

After, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor but seven years was a long time to  do training and you know, we had to earn in those days for ourselves as well as to help the family. On top of this, my grammar school was facing closure in my final year and teachers were leaving.  I decided to on radiotherapy after spending a day in the radiotherapy department of the local general hospital. I would recommend anybody who is wanting to do something to actually volunteer, to go and spend some time to see what they will be doing before they decide. There are 20+ places for radiography students who had studied together but only 4 places for radiotherapy students, the remainder were for diagnostic radiography. Another reason for my decision to choose radiotherapy was having read the story of athlete Lillian Board’s chemotherapy treatment. There are still very few black therapeutic radiographers - 99% of what we do is treat cancer.

In 2005 I spoke at the annual radiotherapy conference and noticed how few BME radiographers there were there - about 6 out of 200 (including me!), three of whom had been sent over from Africa to train here and were returning! Most recently I spoke at the 2017 Radiotherapy Conference in Newcastle as an invited speaker and noticed little change, at which point I did raise awareness that this profession needs to attract more diversity, particularly as we have a diverse population, and many languages. I encourage allied health professionals to value diversity and would like to see more young BME people take up the profession.

With reference to my Honorary Doctorate, it felt fitting that it should be awarded during July, which is Ethnic Minority Cancer Awareness Month. I’m actually also on the management committee of Cancer Equality, the charity that set up EMCAM.


I hope they take that on board

Well they did this time and a few people commented on it afterwards. So i realised I could’ve been either the only black radiographer--apart from those that had come from other countries. My principal—I thank god for miss harper--she actually went over to the Caribbean, recruited some girls who wanted to train as radiographers, brought them back to this country and found places for them in Lincoln and Nottingham and different places to train them. Then they went back over and the Jamaican government—I don't know if they were assisted form here--set up the first radiotherapy department, I believe in the Caribbean, in Kingston. I actually saw what had come out of that when I went over in ‘76, that they had another department in Montego bay that they were developing. The girl that was actually heading up that department that hadn’t opened yet, was from Lincoln. She was a black radiographer and she did actually offer me a job ‘cause I’d been qualified about a year then and I was going to take it and I was writing back to offer my services when Lindsay my husband court me and asked me out.


Everything changed, he swept you off you feet!

Well no! We were friends for some time before and he proposed just before I was offered a job in Montego Bay (which I didn’t go for in the end). I had this plan that you know I would get the skills and actually… You had to, in those days, be qualified for three years before you got any progression. But there were no jobs in Nottingham because nobody moved. Because people didn't have benefits for maternity rights that they have now. I basically had a choice of either going to leeds—I was offered jobs at Leeds, Hammersmith hospital in London and Westminster hospital. And I chose Westminster because it was easier for me to get back home and in the last year of  my training was when we had the devastating news that our mother had breast cancer. My mother was articulate, she was the district women’s leader for our church, which covered from the east midlands right up to Yorkshire and Liverpool. So she was a great speaker and she was the first person in her family to join a pentecostal church.


You recently got an honorary degree. How did this come about?

This actually came as a surprise to me but I am very humbled by it. I will be receiving the honorary degree at a graduation ceremony on 21st July 2017 at the Theatre Royal organised by Nottingham Trent University. I was advised that this was in recognition of my work over 40 years that is linked to cancer services which includes my advocacy for people affected by cancer especially those from BME Communities. I am grateful because this continues to raise further awareness on cancer in general and especially high prostate cancer inequalities in black men.  The reports we previously wrote on this triggered a national campaign which raised awareness and developed the Check ‘Tings Out community clinic in St Anns which we are very proud of. Thank you Nottingham Trent University!


About Rose's work with BME Council & Hear Me Now Campaign

Although BME formally stands for Black & Minority Ethnics, those familiar with the organisation often pronounce the acronyms as Be-Me. This unique twist highlights the focus of BME Cancer Communities as it invites communities at large to see and put themselves in the place of the often ignored black and minority ethnic members of various communities. Dr Thompson's expertise in BME cancer has led her to both local and external positions; Dr Thompson has served within Europe's leading cancer and information charities such as Cancerbackup and Macmillan Support (Now joint) as the Charity's first black and Minority Ethnic Cancer Information Specialist (2003-2007). Furthermore, her 26 years clinical experience in radiotherapy and dedication to community awareness has been awarded with two discretionary points for work with BME Communities.

At the forefront of Dr Thompson's BME Council is the Hear Me Now Campaign. Hear Me Now's most recent annual report acts as a bridge between communities and health inequalities. Thompson's project brings awareness to marginalised issues such as the fact that Black and African men are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer. Not only does the project drive awareness, it is important that it provides solutions. Workshops, presentations and roundtables in places like London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leeds have helped to battle emergent issues regarding BME cancer diagnosis and treatment. These workshops provide informative dialogue regarding the battle against late awareness, hereditary diagnosis and debunking surprisingly harmful myths such as the notion that darker skins do not develop skin cancer. Additionally, the project and report's innovative solutions and suggestions vary from proposals regarding the NHS Outcomes Framework, Prostate Screening, Community Engagement and the proposed 'Be Clear on Cancer' campaign. Such findings and solutions envision a world in which collaborations between Health, Wellbeing Boards and community organisationers may work fluidly on BME Cancer awareness, patient experiences and thus address the racial and cultural inequalities faced by patients. Dr Thompson's personal family history of breast cancer fuels her passion and engagement; the validity of the black and minority ethnic cancer treatment and diagnosis experience is therefore a matter of primary concern. As chair of the Nottingham African Caribbean Health Network and the founder/coordinator of Ethnic Minority Cancer Awareness Week, it is certain that Dr Thompson's imprint on Cancer research and support will be remembered and celebrated!