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The Policy Ask with Michelle Mitchell: “I never saw female CEO role models when I was growing up”

The chief executive of Cancer Research UK on self-confidence, the workforce crisis and the 10-year cancer plan.

By Spotlight

Michelle Mitchell has been chief executive at Cancer Research UK for four years and was a non-executive director of NHS England (NHSE). She sits on the NHSE National Cancer Board, NHS Genomics Board and Life Sciences Advisory Council. Previously, she was chief executive of the MS Society, director general of Age UK and chair of the Fawcett Society. In 2015, she was awarded an OBE for services to the charity sector.

How do you start your working day?   

Making sure I see my children before they head to school is really important to me – and of course embarrassing them with a big kiss! Then, I like to start my day with some exercise, usually a run, yoga or rowing. At the moment, I’m training for Cancer Research UK’s Ultra Ballroom event, so I might have to dance more in the morning soon to practise my routine. 

What has been your career high?     

Near the end of my time at Age UK, pension credit and triple lock on the state pension was introduced, something I’d spent a decade campaigning for. These measures gave pensioners minimum weekly payments and ensured their pensions didn’t lose value due to inflation. It was such a big win for older people and for me personally.   

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?   

Navigating the challenges of a global pandemic for cancer patients while keeping Cancer Research UK in a solid financial position was tough. I’m so proud of how we pulled together and weathered the storm. But the impacts of Covid-19 are still being felt and winter pressures and the cost-of-living crisis are just two examples of the challenges ahead. We’ll continue to advocate for the cancer services patients need and deserve. 

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?       

I grew up in a town in the north of England in the unemployment-fraught 1970s and 1980s. None of my family had ever been to university and I’d never seen female CEO role models. So, I’d tell myself to have confidence in my convictions. Believe you have the power to change society for the better.  

Which political figure inspires you? 

I can think of so many, but Dame Millicent Fawcett stands out as a front-runner. I spent over six years at the Fawcett Society and her lifelong commitment to women’s rights and social change is something we can all aspire to. This quote from her is one that I remind myself of regularly: “Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” 

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?   

Early diagnosis of cancer is one of the best ways to improve your chances of surviving cancer. So, investing to roll out community diagnostic centres (CDC) was an important moment in bringing much-needed capacity to stretched diagnostic services. More than 1.7 million tests have been carried out in CDCs so far, helping more patients get their all-important tests to diagnose or rule out cancer.   

And what policy should the UK government ditch?   

When it comes to overweight and obesity, the second biggest preventable cause of cancer, we have so much evidence that shows why policy intervention is needed. Junk food advertising and multibuy price promotions encourage unhealthy eating and more spending at a time when people have less money in their pockets. The government should reverse Boris Johnson’s decision to delay implementing restrictions on junk food marketing.   

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?     

The ten-year plan for cancer was promised by the previous health secretary, and we were pleased to see the new prime minister recommit to publishing that plan on her second day in post. The government has a chance here to transform the UK’s cancer outcomes from world-lagging to world-leading, if it gets that plan right. We want to see bold ambitions, detail and – crucially – funding.  

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?   

Countries that have the best cancer outcomes, like Australia, are better at planning for growing demand and investing accordingly. If the UK really wants to provide world-class cancer services, it must solve its workforce crisis and invest in key equipment so we can diagnose more cancers early and offer patients the best treatments. Right now, we are at the bottom of the pack, and that is unacceptable.  

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?         

Smoking is the biggest cause of cancer. It’s also the main driver of health inequalities. This is unacceptable and the government has the power to change this. Our SmokeFree UK campaign calls for more government action, including more funding for the measures and services needed to help people quit. And if the government cannot fund this, the tobacco industry must be made to foot the bill.

[See also: “This is just not safe for anyone”: the NHS doctors at breaking point]

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