In conversation with our Chair, Sir Borys – Part two: From lab to leadership

Cancer Research UK

In the second instalment of our interview with Cancer Research UK Chair Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, he speaks with Joanna Lewin about how a diverse CV – from lab bench to C-suite – has helped him navigate chairmanship of the world’s largest cancer charity.

What does being Chair of Cancer Research UK mean to you?

It’s an unbelievable honour. I feel a huge debt of gratitude to the volunteers and individuals who support us and enable all this fantastic research. As Chair, I’m exposed to the totality of what the charity does. We do great science, great clinical work, great advocacy work, great policy work, but none of that is possible without the support we get from ordinary people who have often had some sort of experience with cancer. And yet here they are wanting to help so that others don’t have to endure the same. When you meet people like that, you just know there’s such a groundswell to beat this disease, and to make sure that people can live long and fulfilling lives even if they do receive a diagnosis. It’s a very different role to being a researcher but one I’m really enjoying.

I do believe that in 10 years, 3 in 4 people with cancer will live for 10 years or more. And that goal is worth spending every hour and every day I do with Cancer Research UK.

What have you learned so far?

So much. The fact that we are the largest cancer charity means that we are under public scrutiny all the time. And that’s quite right. The media act as guardians, as do our own communities of volunteers and donors. I’ve learned that it’s my role to encourage them to bring their views forward because they’re so vital to our progress. I’ve also learned that partnerships are absolutely crucial. It’s not just our charity versus cancer, it’s Macmillan, Marie Curie and the 600 other cancer charities. We need to work together in a remarkable way. Some organisations are more specific, like Prostate Cancer UK and Breast Cancer Now, while others like us have a broader focus. Some focus on palliation, others on patient support. It’s all necessary to achieve benefits for people with cancer. Because I know the science, I know what can be done. I do believe that by 2034, 3 in 4 people with cancer will live for 10 years or more (currently it’s 2 in 4). And that goal is worth spending every hour and every day I do with Cancer Research UK.

Your career has spanned lab research, medical consultancy and leadership roles. How do you think that broad experience has helped you as Chair of Cancer Research UK?

When you’re trying to tackle the really tough questions – why does cancer act like it does, how is it evolving, can we better predict it and can we more precisely treat it – you begin to realise that no matter how large an organisation, no one can beat cancer alone. You need universities, you need research institutes, you need visionary funders who will support novel lines of enquiry. You need the health service to carry out the clinical studies we develop and to provide the right and optimum care. You need industry and the private sector to be able to develop new treatments, because we have no public means of doing so. You need individual hospitals supporting individual researchers to give them the chance to try something different in a certain research area. When you piece it altogether, which I’ve been able to do through my varied roles, you begin to understand that this isn’t just a national agenda, it’s an international one. We are at the centre of an amazing aggregation of bodies that can drive this target of improving cancer survival to 3 in 4. That’s the tantalising thing for me – our vision is challenging but achievable.

What are the differences between fundraising at higher education institutes and charities like ours?

At Cambridge, we were fortunate to have lots of high-net-worth supporters who were normally looking to give back to their college, maybe by supporting a subject or the construction of a building. But ultimately, they were supporting an institution. At Cancer Research UK, it’s more about supporting a theme of work – something broader that can be achieved – and the funding isn’t tied to one place. We can enable a philanthropist to support a theme of work, and they have the confidence that we know where the best work is happening in that area, so that they can achieve much more through their giving.

Why is philanthropy so important to Cancer Research UK?

I’m going to take you back to when I first received a Cancer Research UK grant. We had other grants at the time, but what was different about this one was that this money was given by individuals. It wasn’t coming from a taxpayer pot, brilliant though those funds are. This was donated because people felt strongly about improving things. That’s real philanthropy. It’s about those who have experienced cancer or have actually engaged or thought about it, and want to support ways to improve things. So as a scientist in receipt of this funding, you have a huge responsibility to do the best with every single penny of it. You have that added impetus to try to achieve more.

- Joanna Lewin is Philanthropy & Partnerships Communications Manager and Editor at Cancer Research UK

If you’re looking to start a philanthropic journey with Cancer Research UK, please contact nicola.lightfoot@cancer.org.uk