Interview: Kate Collins, chief executive, The Teenage Cancer Trust

The chief executive of The Teenage Cancer Trust speaks to CYP Now editor Derren Hayes.

Kate Collins: Pressing for action on the NHS Long Term Plan
Kate Collins: Pressing for action on the NHS Long Term Plan

For someone who confesses to not having a “career plan”, Kate Collins has done rather well – after joining the Teenage Cancer Trust in 2009 to boost regional fundraising, Collins moved up the management chain and was appointed chief executive two years ago.

After working for children’s organisations and cancer charities “the trust brought both of these things together”, she says.

It has grown substantially since its inception in 1990, but income has plateaued in recent years and Collins must address this if she is to achieve its aim that every young person aged 13 to 25 with cancer can access the support they need.

Did being promoted internally to chief executive pose any challenges?

I’ve had five different roles at Teenage Cancer Trust; all were a promotion and required me to be interviewed by colleagues who became my peers. When you’ve grown within an organisation you need to reframe yourself but still be yourself.

When I became chief executive I brought in some external support to talk to key stakeholders within the NHS and other partners to get an external perspective on how they viewed us. You can’t assume you know everything about an organisation just because you’re an internal appointment.

Kate Collins CV

  • 2018 – Chief executive, Teenage Cancer Trust
  • 2013 – Director, Teenage Cancer Trust
  • 2009 – Regional fundraising programme, Teenage Cancer Trust
  • 2002 – Community and corporate fundraising roles, Cancer Research UK
  • 1999 – Marketing manager, BBC Children in Need

What have you learned about leadership since being appointed?

You’ve got to be honest about who you are – no one leader knows everything and you’re not always the smartest person in the room. It’s important to have really good people around you that are good at the things you might not be good at.

I’ve never set myself up to be a role model, I just try to bring my whole self to work – not just Kate the chief executive but the whole person.

I have had female colleagues say they find how I do my role inspirational, but you’re never quite sure how people see you.

Building a culture where people feel they belong is incredibly important; we have a powerful diversity of thought and ideas.

It’s a year since the NHS Long Term Plan was published, which pledged to improve care for teenage cancer patients. Has progress been satisfactory?

Having a government that now has a strong majority is an opportunity to push forward and make the changes [in the plan] happen. It’s a 10-year plan but we need to make some progress there.

Service specifications that set out what NHS trusts should provide for teenagers and young adults during their cancer treatment are set to be published shortly. We’ve waited a long time for them and if they are not adhered to then we can hold people’s feet to the fire.

Being a young person with cancer is extremely challenging and the experience is traumatic.

Considering the trauma that having cancer can bring, is enough being done to support young people with the condition?

The 2018 Mental Health Green Paper didn’t articulate the specific needs of young people with cancer at all. For example, the paper focused on boosting mental health in schools, but lots of young people with cancer are not in school so are forgotten about.

We are asking that young people with cancer have access to a trained mental health professional during and after their treatment. Often the physical reality of cancer treatment only hits a young person’s mental health after their treatment has ended – they say it is like falling off a cliff.

We fund youth support co-ordinators to help young people through treatment but they need access to fully trained mental health clinicians after treatment.

Tell us more about the role played by youth support co-ordinators?

They ensure young people can be themselves during treatment. They put on events like a pizza night and set the climate so that connections can be made. They also create a safe space to build a peer community that can help reduce the isolation of cancer.

Surveys have found that 80 per cent of young people choose a co-ordinator to have the conversation about their feelings. They can talk about the stress of their treatment and how they are processing what they are going through.

We run weekend residentials for under-18s and over-18s called Find Your Sense of Tumour where young people can talk about issues important to them like getting back to work, body image and overcoming practical issues. Co-ordinators remain a trusted person for them throughout this.

What more can Teenage Cancer Trust do to improve support for young people?

We currently have 52 nurses, but we’d like to expand our post-treatment support. To do that we need to raise more money. All our income comes from fundraising, including support from companies and events. But we are still relatively young and don’t have the track record of older organisations nor many legacy donations.

We grew a lot from 2010 to 2017/18 but have plateaued since. As we expand our team of nurses across the UK we need a sustainable plan for where future income comes from.

It’s never easy to raise money but as long as we set out an engaging and compelling ambition I will always believe it is possible – I know the difference we can make.

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