Jacci Woodcock on her campaign for better protection for the working rights of terminally ill people
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 November 2018
as supplied - TUC
David Marley discovers how Jacci Woodcock, an inspirational Derbyshire activist who is dying from cancer, is leading a national campaign to secure better employment protection for terminally ill people
‘I simply don’t know how much time I have left on earth,’ says Jacci Woodcock, as she reflects on a recent decision to halt her medical treatment for terminal breast cancer.
‘I am determined to use what time I have available to campaign for better employment protection for all those terminally ill people living after me – so that they can make their own choice as to whether they wish to work or not.’
Having survived a battle with cancer 12 years earlier, Jacci, from Milford, near Belper, started to feel unwell again in summer 2012. After visiting her doctor for tests she discovered that she had terminal cancer. With an unfaltering enthusiasm for life she approached her diagnosis with a renewed passion to continue to work in the commercial interior design industry she loved, and since then has gone on to spearhead a national campaign calling for better protection for the working rights of terminally ill people.
‘I am now becoming increasingly tired and in the past few months I have stopped my medical treatment,’ she says. ‘I have no idea how much longer I can go on for – but I think any sensible person would agree that it is crazy that current disability legislation does not prevent terminally ill employees from being dismissed on the grounds of capability.’
She is taking her fight for employment justice for the terminally ill to the heart of Government and is calling for a change in the law to protect the rights of people who wish to work after they receive a terminal diagnosis.
Jacci, who originally trained as an orthopedic nurse, moved to Derbyshire in the 1980s to raise her young daughter. She moved from Cornwall to her adopted county and did a variety of jobs – even running a public house in Belper with her father for a short time.
However, Jacci didn’t discover her true vocation until she was in her thirties when she embarked on what became an almost three-decade-long career in the fast-paced and challenging world of commercial sales and marketing.
‘It was wonderful to begin my job as a commercial sales representative for a national company selling beautiful fabrics and textiles to a range of clients, including hotels, hospitals and nursing homes,’ she remembers.
‘It was common for me to be out and about for 50 to 60 hours, travelling up to 1,500 miles in my car every week, covering the length and breadth of the country.’ Jacci’s commitment and hard work was rewarded with a series of promotions, lifting her to a senior management role as a regional sales manager.
As her professional career blossomed, her private world was turned upside down when in 2000 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘As a self-confessed fitness fanatic and regular gym-goer I was stunned to hear the news. Even though I had always been susceptible to growths on my body – I had a breast lump surgically removed when I was 22 – it was still like a bolt of lightning when I was told the diagnosis,’ she remembers.
Jacci received support and assistance from the company she worked for at the time. ‘They were great – my managing director even drove to my home to offer his best wishes and consideration,’ she recalls. ‘I dealt with my illness as if it was a project. I had to have quite a lot of treatment and operations.’
Despite the serious nature of her cancer, Jacci only took the odd day off here and there for chemotherapy treatment and continued to work. ‘I think my mobile ’phone was only turned off for the day of my operation,’ she says. As time went by Jacci began her road to recovery and even had time to join a local support group for other cancer patients at the Derby Royal Infirmary.
‘I joined the committee to show people that cancer does not necessarily mean the end of your life,’ she says. In any spare moments Jacci devoted her time to attending conferences and support groups for other people who had been diagnosed with cancer.
As her health recovered Jacci’s career continued to flourish. With an enviable reputation for success in the interior design world, she was headhunted by a number of companies before taking a role with a British-based firm. ‘Naturally, I disclosed my previous health issues before joining the company and they accepted my medical history before I started.’
She bought a cottage in Milford, embraced her new role and started to make a difference in helping her company hit challenging sales figures and targets. However, as time passed Jacci knew something was wrong with her health.
‘Originally I thought it was just the stress of my busy life but after a series of blood tests my doctors said it was terminal cancer – and I was gutted because I thought I had beaten the disease but it came back and nipped me on the bum,’ recalls Jacci.
‘I didn’t take any days off until nearly a year after my diagnosis when I hit a wall of complete exhaustion. So I visited my doctor and he gave me a sick note for a couple of weeks – at this point, it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t support me,’ she says. ‘Sadly, my employer and I had very different views on the opportunities for working people diagnosed with a terminal illness, and as a result, after several years, I left the firm.’
The 2010 Equalities Act does offer some protection for terminally ill employees, however, the Act still allows employers to dismiss a terminally ill employee if they fail a capability assessment with ‘reasonable adjustments’.
‘The more work did things to me they shouldn’t have done – the more determined I became and began to see that the law was not protecting vulnerable people like me,’ Jacci explains.
She contacted her trade union, the GMB, for support. ‘They were great and with the support of my local MP, Pauline Latham, we began to lobby parliamentarians for a change in the law.’ The GMB took Jacci’s vision to the European Parliament and also came up with a name for the campaign – ‘Dying to Work’.
The Dying to Work campaign aims to see terminal illness recognised as a ‘protected characteristic’ so that an employee with a terminal illness would enjoy a ‘protected period’ where they could not be dismissed as a result of their condition. ‘This protection would give every person battling terminal conditions the choice of how they spend their final months.’
With the help of Pauline Latham, Jacci lobbied the UK Government and soon after the Trade Union Congress (TUC) adopted the campaign as one of its major policy initiatives.
Lee Barron, Midlands regional secretary of the TUC, says: ‘The TUC is proud to be part of the Dying to Work campaign and prouder still of Jacci Woodcock who is the inspiration behind it. Her courage is immense and this campaign wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for her.’
So far, dozens of organisations have signed up to Jacci’s campaign, including: Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, Derbyshire Constabulary, Rolls-Royce and numerous charities and public sector organisations throughout Derbyshire – as well as major corporations beyond the county’s borders including: Severn Trent Water and Santander UK.
For Jacci her dignified campaign goes on. ‘I was re-diagnosed several years ago – and I have now lived longer than I thought I would have done,’ she says. ‘I really want to see the rights of terminally ill people who wish to work put into law and only at that point can I rest and have the opportunity to live my remaining time in peace.’
As with so many social justice pioneers before her, it may only be at the point when the legislation is enacted that we truly appreciate Jacci’s contribution and enduring legacy to improvements in employment law and the rights of thousands of people who live and work with terminal cancer each and every day of their lives. u
For further information about the campaign visit www.dyingtowork.co.uk