"If my energy ever flags, Mick’s there as living proof": Jill May on raising a million for cancer research

Cancer Research UK

When former investment banker turned director Jill May started fundraising for CRUK in 2012, there was no way of knowing that her husband would be diagnosed with cancer just a year later. Almost seven years on, Jill has raised £1.25m towards our work through her unflinching dedication to the cause and a talent for mobilising her network. Joanna Lewin spoke with Jill to dig deeper into this remarkable fundraising success  

On getting involved in philanthropy

In 2011, I sat next to a lady called Polly Wood at a dinner. She sat on Cancer Research UK’s National Events Committee and she was very persuasive. I found myself committing to organising the 2012 CRUK Carol Concert at St Paul’s Cathedral – with 2,500 people attending. That was my first foray into large-scale fundraising and we raised several hundred thousand pounds. I found that it was hard persuading large corporates to give money to medical research, so it was important to focus on my own contacts and friends.

Then, in 2013, my husband Mick was diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable lung cancer. Six years after the initial diagnosis, he’s still here. It underscored the critical importance of what CRUK does. Mick has benefited from several CRUK-funded clinical trials and it has made us realise how lucky we are. That has driven me to focus further on philanthropy.

On hosting fundraisers

You get a huge buzz when you put on an event and it’s successful. The satisfaction of pulling off something very beautiful like a carol concert at St Paul’s Cathedral is fantastic. It’s been a privilege to be associated with these wonderful events on behalf of CRUK and fascinating to get to know a top charity from the inside.

It can also be stressful at times, but fundraising and events have now become a part of my life. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of CRUK’s scientific experts, as well as brilliant emerging scientists. That insight has been phenomenal. Mick and I both feel we’ve learnt so much more about the disease. We’re impressed by the charity’s global reach and reassured by the experts being so well-connected to other scientists, receiving and sharing intelligence around the world. After all, cancer is a global battle.

On cancer as a cause

Having exhausted conventional treatments, Mick and I are now very much looking at the new waves of thinking. My major focus is to help prolong the lives of people with the hardest-to-treat cancers, for whom an extra few years of life is unimaginably important. That message sometimes gets forgotten. Finding ways to help people with terminal cancer live an extended, high-quality life may not sound as appealing as finding cures, but it’s just as vital.

I have other charitable interests but for the time being, my loyalty is with research into cancer. I’m enjoying the fact that I understand so much more about the challenge. The more you read and understand, the more you realise how critical this endeavour has become. And if my energy ever flags, Mick’s there as living proof. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to help change the future. I’ve been heartened by the many breakthroughs and focused on the fact that there’s so much more to do. For example, it’s crucial that drugs are moved quickly through the trial stage and made available to people who don’t enjoy the advantages of living in London and having access to the best thinking and treatments.

On how to succeed as an events fundraiser

I suggest crafting an event theme that’s likely to have broad appeal. If you focus on one type of cancer, it rules out a lot of philanthropists who may not have an interest or knowledge of that specific kind. Broader themes – liquid biopsies, immunotherapy, personalised medicine – are really engaging. Regardless of this, I’ve had most success when an ordinary person has brought the message home by telling their story. I’m certainly more likely to take out my cheque book if someone stands up and tells me what a difference the charity’s work has made to their lives.

On the future

I would love to say we’re on a trajectory that means cancer will be a thing of the past in say 15 or 20 years’ time. But it’s a marathon – the disease is clever and multifaceted. There’s clearly potential for real breakthroughs but much more research is needed. Immunotherapy, for example, works for some but not others. We don’t understand why the drug Mick takes, Vismodegib, works for him but might not for someone else. There’s so much complexity but we’re moving forward at pace. We need to continue to give it our full focus, collaborate globally and broaden access to drugs.

I became involved with CRUK because I thought it would be interesting. In fact, it was not only fascinating and complex but also pivotally important. Then Mick became my living proof that I need to keep doing this.

Jill’s next fundraising event is a dinner at the Bank of England attended by the Governor, Mark Carney

Joanna Lewin is philanthropy and partnerships communications manager and editor at CRUK