Online Interview with CancerPal's Jo Riley
Can you tell us a little of the background of CancerPal and what has been your inspiration?
CancerPal is an online platform aimed at supporting the family & friends of those going through cancer so that they in turn can provide the best possible support to their loved one with the disease.
We provide products and cancer Care Boxes to help ease the side effects of cancer treatments and we share practical tips, advice, and product recommendations from those with first-hand experience of
going through cancer.
When my amazing mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I felt so helpless. I just didn’t know what I could say or do to support mum or help her feel better. I felt completely isolated - I didn’t even know
where to go to get some help, so I turned to Google… I literally spent hours and hours each night, often into the small hours, Googling mum’s diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment options, but I soon realised that sadly, many people had been through this experience before mum and that there was a wealth of knowledge out there and actually, there were lots of practical things I could do to support her.
So, I started researching the side effects of mum’s treatments - we’re all aware that cancer treatment can cause hair loss, but I didn’t know this came with a sensitive scalp, I wasn’t aware that mum’s skin would blister and burn from the radiation treatment and I had no idea that the tablets she was taking to keep her alive would cause the worst mouth sores I’ve ever seen, meaning that some days she found it difficult to speak, let alone eat. But I also found people that had been through all of this and were able to recommend tips and products to help ease some of these horrendous side effects,
products that I just didn’t know existed. So, I created my very own Care Box for mum and I’ll never forget how much those little boxes meant to her – they represented the fact that I had tried to understand (just a little bit) what she was going through.
And that was the inspiration for CancerPal. I did my absolute best to help, support, and care for mum, but there are things I now know, that would have made that help and support even better and I want to share that knowledge with others so that they can provide the best possible support to their loved one.
How long has CancerPal been in operation?
I guess the idea for CancerPal came after Mum died in 2018. I knew there was a lack of support for the family & friends of those going through cancer and I kept mulling it over in my head, thinking about the type of support I would like to have received.
I formally registered CancerPal as a company in September 2018 and I spent the next year writing business plans, researching products, sourcing suppliers and creating the website – all really exciting stuff, but also completely outside of my skill set, so I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos!
We formally launched CancerPal in November 2019 and then the Coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 which made life interesting… but actually it made us really focus on our communication plan and how we ‘spread the word’ about CancerPal, so it hasn’t been all bad.
You offer cancer care boxes, some are ‘themed’ and pre-made. I think this is such a super idea as it's hard to know what to treat a loved one to, so these are perfect. Can you also make up your own boxes, from products found on your site?
One of the biggest learnings for me was the range of side effects that cancer treatments cause. As I mentioned above most people are aware of the potential hair loss and nausea, but there are so many other side effects that those of us that haven’t been through cancer, just aren’t aware of. I wanted to create Care Boxes that explain to family & friends the side effects of each treatment type, and the
products that can help ease these side effects so that family & friends are more aware of what their loved ones are going through and the ways in which they can help.
Our Care Boxes cover the common side effects of each treatment type, Inner Strength, Surgery, Chemotherapy, and Radiotherapy, but of course, not everyone will experience the same side effects, so if someone wants to put together a bespoke Care Box based on their loved one’s specific needs, we will happily accommodate that.
You are a Welsh company; do you deliver outside the UK?
We’re based in Caerphilly, we work out of shared office space there.
When I first set up CancerPal my aim was to support the 360,000 people in the UK who are diagnosed with cancer each year, but we actually get visitors from all over the world and we've sent care boxes all over the world too.
I can still remember the excitement of waking up to our first order from Australia. I felt so proud that someone on the other side of the world had heard about little old
Carers do an amazing job, and you are very proactive regarding helping ‘carers’ is this because
you have personal experience?
Haha, you’ll get me on my soapbox now… 80% of cancer care in the UK is provided by family &
friends which makes sense if you think about it. Cancer patients don’t want to spend all their time in a hospital - they prefer to go in for their treatment and then recover at home. But that puts a massive burden on the family & friends who are ‘looking after’ them. I remember when mum had her chemo
treatments, we were told that if her temperature went above a certain point, we had to phone her
chemo care team urgently. This is because chemotherapy weakens the immune system, making cancer
patients more susceptible to infections and a raised temperature can be a sign of an infection. But
mum didn’t want to be admitted to hospital and so when her temperature started rising she would
beg me not to call the hospital – that is a big responsibility to have placed on your shoulders…
Hopefully that’s where CancerPal can help. It’s really important to mention that CancerPal doesn’t offer any medical advice or opinion, we are simply sharing the knowledge and experience of others who
have been through a cancer diagnosis, but in doing this, we hope to empower family & friends, the
‘unpaid carers’ if you like, to feel better equipped to provide that 80% of care.
What can people find on your website?
CancerPal is all about providing support for those experiencing cancer whether you’re a carer, helper
or a patient, so on our website, you can find our support pages where we have curated a range of
information and advice by side effects e.g. hair loss, nausea, stress & anxiety etc.
It isn’t medical information, but it’s knowledge and experience that has been shared by other people
who have also been affected by cancer. We’re also not trying to reinvent the wheel. If there’s some
great information on someone else’s website, we’ll point you to it.
My biggest frustration when I was supporting mum was that the information was so hard to find, so
that’s all we’re trying to do is curate it in one central location and make it easily accessible for
family & friends.
As I’ve already mentioned, we also have our Care Boxes and Empathy Cards, which make a thoughtful
and practical gift if someone is going through cancer. Plus we have the 'CancerPal MarketPlace' where we list hundreds of products that can help to ease the side effects of cancer treatments.
I love the idea of the empathy cards! It is so difficult to know the right thing to say to a cancer
sufferer. Do you make them?
Yes, empathy cards are a really important part of what we do.
Lots of cancer patients tell us that one of the things they value the most during the hard days are the little handwritten notes and messages from family & friends.
But I also remember when mum received a well-intentioned card from a friend that had ‘Get Well
Soon’ written on the front and it really upset Mum because many cancer patients simply don’t know if they will ever get better.
So hopefully our empathy card range can help you find a more appropriate message to send to a loved one.
We don’t design the cards ourselves, but we handpick empathetic cards with a range of caring,
uplifting and positive messages in them to help you find just the right words to say to someone going through cancer.
I’m proud to say that we have the largest selection of cancer-related empathy cards in the UK.
Jo, I see you have won some awards. Congratulations! Tell us more about these.
Aw thank you so much. For me, the most rewarding part of what CancerPal does is knowing that we’re helping other people, but it’s still amazing to get external recognition for what we’re doing.
I was thrilled (and surprised!) to be a finalist in the Welsh Women’s Awards 2020 and CancerPal was a finalist in the Wales Start Up Awards 2020 in the category of Rising Star.
We also won the Great British Entrepreneur Awards – Entrepreneur for Good Award in Wales 2020 and that was a fun night. Because of Coronavirus the awards event took place online, so I was sitting at my
kitchen table with my husband, watching my laptop. We had some nibbles and a cheeky glass of Prosecco and we were enjoying the closest thing we’d had to a night out in ages… and then suddenly they read out CancerPal’s name and my house just erupted!!! My husband jumped up and screamed and my children came running in, jumping up and down and hugging me. It was fab - a really memorable night, just jumping round my little kitchen table.
You offer a ‘Cancer Supporter Toolkit’ -can you explain what this entails?
So many people have said to me that they wish there was a ‘guidebook’ to cancer and whilst there isn’t our ‘Cancer Supporter Toolkit’ is the next best thing.
Each month we focus on a different cancer side effect and we share information, advice, and tips in a
single email. It’s a great way of ensuring that you’re not missing out on any of the new content that we’re continually adding to the website.
You also have a blog section on your website. Do you write these blogs or are they from guests?
Well it’s a mixture. We write some of the blogs where we share our own experiences or pull together all of the many tips and recommendations that have been shared with us. For example we’ve just
finished pulling together a blog on Nausea Remedies
which provides a really comprehensive overview of all the nausea tips that have worked for other
people that might be worth you trying.
But we also love guest blogs. Our website is all about sharing the experience and knowledge of others who have been there and one of the ways we do that is through guest blogs. When mum was going
through cancer I found it comforting to read other people’s stories that had been in the same boat
and to learn how they had coped with things. So if you’re reading this and you have a story to share,
we’d love to hear from you.
I read a quote on your website "Doctors tell you what is going to happen with your treatment - but
other patients tell you how to cope with it" Never a truer word has been said.
Yes I read that quote and it really resonated with me. I can still remember sitting in the meeting room with mum’s consultant, he was telling us about her new treatment and he blasely ran through the
list of side effects the treatment could cause, and the off-handed way that he mentioned those mouth sores that completely floored mum. No acknowledgement of just how severe they could be and
certainly no mention of how to deal with them. Thankfully other patients who had experienced this came to the rescue but as a family member or friend, it’s not always that easy to speak to other
cancer patients and that, I hope, is where CancerPal can help.
Thank you so much Jo for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to talk to the Cancer Hub!
You can find contact and social media links for Cancerpal here;
Twitter - https://twitter.com/Cancer_Pal