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Changemakers: ‘Cancer on Board’ badges humanise the struggle of cancer

James McNaught got the idea for his tube badges from TfL’s ‘Baby On Board’ scheme, and says his idea is gaining traction all across the country

It’s a joke that got out of hand,” laughs James McNaught, a House of Lords doorkeeper who has made a difference to nearly 10,000 lives across the UK through his charity Cancer On Board. The 48-year-old distributes ‘baby on board’-style badges to people with cancer to wear on public transport, often to and from treatment, encouraging others to watch out for them. McNaught achieved the impressive feat of helping people forge connections while on the Tube.

The founder left Gloucestershire for London 25 years ago. Once in the capital he found work as a landscape gardener, a security guard and an office administrator before landing his position at the House of Lords (“the most strangely Victorian job that still exists in the world,” he says).

In 2014, he saw a doctor about a sore throat he had been ignoring for months, expecting to be sent home with antibiotics. But the GP called a colleague in to take a look, and another, then referred McNaught to an oncologist. This Easter marks five years since his throat cancer diagnosis.

We joked that we could get some of those ‘baby on board’ badges and pretend to be pregnant,

Two months of chemotherapy plus six weeks of radiotherapy meant “a lot of trips on the Tube,” he says. “I got talking – croaking and whispering, really – to another guy in the waiting room when I was being treated, having to go to hospital every day.

“It was the hottest day of the year and we both had a terrible journey on the Tube. It was so busy and because you can’t talk you can’t actually say ‘Excuse me, can I sit down?’ But you’re always weak and exhausted.

“We joked that we could get some of those ‘baby on board’ badges and pretend to be pregnant so that maybe someone would let us sit down. It was silly, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought there could be something in it.”

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McNaught took to the internet and found he could have badges made cheaply. After knocking together a simple design using Transport for London’s (TfL) logo, he ordered a batch of 100 to hand out at the hospital next time he was there.

“Most people are very nice and, if they realise that someone needs a seat, they will jump up,” he explains. “But quite often cancer patients don’t look like the stereotype of what people think they should look like. Not everyone loses their hair. And sometimes, after a long day of being treated like a patient in hospital, cancer sufferers just want to be treated like people.”

The charity works on the understanding that people with cancer often want to grasp on to whatever independence they can get, their illness forcing them to rely on others for most things. “Most people can’t afford private transport for that many journeys anyway,” McNaught says. “But beyond that – if you can get there by yourself, it can feel like a small expression of agency. And for some people, having that badge in their pocket means having the confidence to make a journey that day.”

An unnamed 2016 Mayor of London candidate took an interest in the idea and put McNaught in touch with TfL’s equality and inclusion department. The company was already looking into how to make travelling easier for people with invisible disabilities and were “very supportive” of McNaught’s mission. He later played a key role in developing TfL’s ‘please offer me a seat’ badges.

Concerned the design would tie the badges too closely to London, McNaught arranged a new logo that would allow them to be pushed nationally. Now he receives orders from clinics all across the UK, including Manchester’s Christie Hospital, one of the largest cancer treatment centres in Europe.

But he kept the charity small – with just two trustees, McNaught orders, packages and sends every badge himself. Around 7,000 have been requested online so far; he expects to have surpassed 10,000 by the summer. The badges are free to anyone who needs them and will remain so, funded entirely by donations.

McNaught credits the online cancer community – “an amazing, supportive space full of people doing what they can to get others through the tough times” – for spreading the word about the charity. In the future he wants people running marathons to wear the logo on their T-shirts, and for more cancer care parcels assembled by clinics to automatically come with a Cancer On Board badge.

Read about more changemakers here 

Balancing the charity with his House of Lords day job can be trying, he says, but the feedback makes it worth it. “Something as simple as the email I got this morning,” he says. “It just said, ‘I got on the bus, I was wearing the badge, someone gave me their seat instantly’. It works! The general public doesn’t need to be talked into being kind.” Ultimately, McNaught’s goal is to raise enough cash that the charity can grant travel cards to people undergoing treatment.

The Cancer On Board founder’s illness is currently classed as ‘NED’ (no evidence of disease) – a replacement for the “old-fashioned” idea of remission. When a person has been out of treatment and healthy for five years, doctors will treat them as someone who has never had cancer if the illness ever rears its head again. McNaught will reach that five-year point in September. He says he’s going to have a party.

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