In an exclusive interview with Life Redefined, Alison tells us how she left a city career to become an advocate for keeping in touch through cancer, in this heartwarming story of enduring friendship.
“I’ll write letters to cheer you up through your treatment.” Alison heard herself say to Brian, the man sitting opposite her in the pub. He’d just told her he’d been diagnosed with bowel cancer, and as he was then only an acquaintance, she remembers feeling awkward, helpless and unsure of what to say. All these years later she acknowledges that her offer of letter writing was unusual, to say the least. Brian agrees.
Brian and Alison had met six months earlier on a yoga holiday in India. She’d gone to take refuge from a job in the City which was stifling her. She was living in London, on the hunt for a new career and life; Brian was happily partnered with Neil, living in the home counties. The two had little in common – but they’d got on well enough to have stayed in touch and so came to find themselves having a drink in a bar the day after he’d been diagnosed.
Over the next couple of weeks, Alison tried to forget her offer of letter writing and hoped Brian had too. But a niggling voice kept saying, ‘he’s got cancer and all you have to do is write a letter,’ and so finally she sat down with a glass of wine and put pen to paper. That letter turned out to be the first of over a 100 that she wrote to Brian over the next three years, as his cancer moved from stage III to IV and he underwent surgeries, chemo and radiotherapy in his bid to stay alive.
As the months passed, Brian shared what the letters meant to him. He had been shocked by how isolating his cancer had made him – no longer at work, friends not knowing what to say (so saying nothing), social life almost non-existent.
The letters kept him connected to a world he felt increasingly disconnected from. They brightened his day.
In 2013 Brian was given the all-clear, and was now Alison’s best friend. Alison wanted others to benefit from letters in the same way Brian had. So she set up the charity From Me to You, to educate and inspire everyone who knows someone living with cancer to stay connected by sending a letter or card – to not allow anyone to feel the loneliness or isolation Brian had experienced.
Alison’s vision has now led to thousands of letters connecting friends, family and even strangers. The charity’s Donate A Letter campaign sees over 10,000 donated letters being delivered, every year, to those living with cancer in hospitals and cancer centres.
The charity, having started as a ‘nice idea’ and expected to be nothing more than a hobby, quickly grew, and Alison, knowing nothing of fundraising nor charity administration, took a leap of faith and decided to run it on a full-time basis.
The most unexpected change Alison experienced as a charity founder was her loss of identity. Successful in her City career and highly regarded for her work and expertise, she found herself knowing nothing, being anything but an expert and with no one coming to seek advice. She had to reframe her thinking and embrace the benefits of learning new skills, meeting new people and developing her network with a whole new set of people.
However, as the charity established itself, Alison came to understand that many of her previously learnt skills were transferable; nothing had gone to waste. And, with fascinating new people and challenges to overcome, she soon had no space for nostalgic memories of her old life.
Financially, there were challenges too. Fundraising was the only way the charity could survive and Alison had no experience of this. But we all become more resourceful when something is in jeopardy, so Alison gave herself a target of six months to get the charity self-funding and if that didn’t happen, then she’d pull the plug.
That was back in 2016 and today the charity continues to go from strength to strength, supported by an army of volunteers as well as a core of paid staff. Alison was also keen that her new career shouldn’t get in the way of her new passion, only discovered whilst writing the letters; creative writing.
She set about collaborating with Brian to write a book of her letters and his diary entries (written during his treatment). For this she gave herself no deadlines – it was, instead, to be the place to explore her creativity.
The book (From Me, To You) has been published this year, to great acclaim, including being featured on prime-time breakfast TV. (ITV’s Lorraine.)
Alison says, "I wish I’d had the confidence to do all of this years ago. Leaving my previous career was the best thing I ever did, much as I’d loved it for many years. However, deep down I know that the confidence I have now has only come through age and experience, so I don’t give myself a hard time about it. I’m just glad I’ve done it now."
Alison was hugely supported by Brian in setting up the charity and writing the book and she says that this is a piece of advice she’d give anyone looking to jump into something new – two brains are better than one – but more than that, the support you can give each other gets you through the challenging times. And do, she says, be ready for the ups and downs – the ups can be really high and should be celebrated however small, and the downs should be expected, but will always pass.
Her final piece of advice is this: don’t take it too seriously – previous careers/lives were where we were serious; now it’s time for some fun.
If you would like to send or receive a letter of your own, visit From Me To You, for more information.