When you get a cancer diagnosis and need urgent care, the NHS really steps up to the plate. That’s been my experience and Sheila Kissane-Marshall, a Cambridge-based tech entrepreneur, says it was hers too when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s afterwards that there is a big problem.
“I found that there was nothing by way of help to rehabilitate after I finished a year of treatment,” says Sheila. “I had a very aggressive type of cancer and also surgery -mastectomy, reconstruction - and then radiotherapy. So it had a massive impact on my body, and there was nothing that the hospital could offer apart from going to the local cancer charities.”
She says she did that and they were great but “a nice cup of tea wasn’t enough.” So Sheila, being an entrepreneur, started exploring what she could do herself to fill this gap in cancer care , and that’s led to a business called Boutros Bear which aims to help patients and their employers handle the impact of chronic illness.
First, her research told her about something called exercise oncology, a fitness and rehabilitation programme for recovering cancer patients, pioneered in Australia and America. “It’s basically very specific, graded return to exercise that enables you to recover from a cancer diagnosis, taking into account the fact that you may have had nerve damage to your hands and feet and most of the time that would be temporary.”
After trying this out herself, Sheila got a small grant from the Nuffield Foundation, recruited some personal trainers who were taught about cancer care, and then assembled a first class of 14 patients from the Cambridge area. As well as the exercise classes they were also given access to an online mindfulness programme, and after 12 weeks, a study showed big decreases in clinical depression and stress anxiety levels amongst participants.
Further classes have followed but a key element has been the self-help groups initiated by the patients themselves. Sheila has her own group - “every month this happens on Grantchester Meadows, 10 o'clock first Monday of the month, we meet, we walk, and it's not just cancer patients, it's their family and friends. We've been doing this since 2017.”
Classes were started in Oxford too and the whole idea began to gain momentum - but how was it going to turn into a business? Sheila’s husband is Robert Marshall, a prominent Cambridge businessman and investor. He told her that if it was going to scale up, it needed to be a digital programme - available online.
They convened a workshop of experts, who came up with a problem when asked how much of the programme could be delivered online: “The answer is everything,” says Robert, “except that people don't then adhere to the programme.” In other words, as we’ve found during the pandemic, online experiences can be great but don’t quite match up to face to face interactions.
So Sheila has tried to come up with a hybrid solution - online courses, some prerecorded , some live, with trainers based in the US teaching UK-based groups. coupled with face to face sessions where people get to share their experiences. The courses include weekly personalised training by a physiotherapist, art therapy, and one-to-one counselling
That is the concept and so far it has been tried out on around 40 people. Now comes the difficult bit, turning it into a viable business. The idea is that these courses should be paid for by employers, as a way of helping them manage staff with cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Robert Marshall says there are benefits not just to the employee and to the company but to the wider healthcare system: “The number of people who, post cancer, are going back to their GP with depressive illnesses and anxiety is enormous and spending a small amount of money on rehabilitation can make very significant differences to the overall costs of health care.”
Now, Boutros Bear will need to raise more money, and as one of dozens of health startups competing for cash at a time when investors are becoming cautious, that could be tough. But whether or not this becomes a successful company, filling the gap in the care of cancer and other serious illnesses feels like an idea whose time has come.
(By the way you may, like me, be wondering where the name Boutros Bear came from. Apparently it started as Bosom Buddies but when the business started a programme for men with prostate cancer, Sheila realised that wouldn’t do. But apart from saying “bear is a sign of strength and a friend post cancer” she admits the name is just random. Still, it’s a lot more memorable than many of the bland corporate brands thought up by expensive consultancies - remember Consignia?)
This is such a great idea. I'm going to share the details with friends who are going through cancer treatment.