Cancer Mum Horrified By Boss's Insensitive Insult- The People Newspaper- Exclusive Real-Life Story- ***June 2011***

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Cancer mum Caroline Blishen horrified by boss's insult

Caroline Blishen

Cancer mum Caroline Blishen was horrified when she told her boss she had discovered a terrifying new lump – and he replied: "They found your brain then?"

Medics spotted the growth while Caroline, 59, was getting over a mastectomy after a ­life-threatening battle with breast cancer.

But when she revealed her fears to boss Gerry Aitken, he made the appalling remark in front of her colleagues. Caroline later reported him to the firm's personnel chiefs.

The mum of three is now ­suing In Touch, part of the Hyde Group – Britain's largest housing association – whose website boasts it respects staff who show "bravery, passion and integrity".

And she wants Mr Aitken sacked for his jibe after she quit the firm in disgust and took a job paying £6,000 a year less.

Housing officer Caroline, from Southampton, said: "I want him fired so he can't subject any other woman to this sort of humiliation and pass it off as simple banter.

"Anybody who says things like that isn't fit to manage people."

She added: "Can you imagine how I felt?

"I'd had cancer four years ­before and had to have a breast removed and chemotherapy – then they found a new lump.

"I'm a single mum and I didn't want to scare my boys, so I didn't talk to anyone about it.

"But I was terrified the cancer was back and thought, 'Please don't let it happen again'."

Caroline said she was frightened to ask Mr Aitken for an afternoon off for tests after missing several days with viruses – caused by the chemo weakening her immune system.

She went on: "I didn't want people in the ­office to know so I waited till he'd walked outside.

"There were a few colleagues about but I spoke to him quietly.

"I'd been really nervous anyway about what the results would show and was even more nervous about how he'd react.

"But he just laughed and said, 'A lump? They found your brain then?'

"I was gobsmacked – all the people nearby heard.

"I was wondering if my cancer was back and he cracked a joke about my brain being a cancerous lump in front of other workers."

Caroline, who'd worked at the Southampton branch of In Touch for almost two years, eventually told the firm's human resources department what was said.

But she said HR officer Wendy Pruce also laughed and told her: "Gerry was only joking."

Caroline, who has three adult sons, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2006. She said: "I went to get a lump checked and they told me it was cancer.

"I immediately went into survival mode and asked, "What are we going to do?"

"They took the lump out and gave me some more tests.

"Two weeks later they told me I had to have a breast removed.

"It was a big shock but there was no choice. I never cried – I just tried to be brave.

"It was a hard ordeal but my sons looked after me."

Caroline had reconstruction surgery on her breast in 2007 but was ordered to stay off work for a year to build up her strength.

When the 12 months was up, she landed her £18,000 post with In Touch in June 2008.

She said: "I had been pleased to go back to work – but the last thing I expected was to be treated the way I was."

Caroline admitted she'd had to take time off because of regular viruses caused by her treatment.

But things came to a head in March last year with the comment made by Mr Aitken.

She initially tried to put it ­behind her after the lump was found to be benign.

But three months later she hurt her back and went to a doctor.

The woman told her In Touch had requested she ask Caroline "inappropriate" questions about her recovery from reconstructive breast surgery – which had ­nothing to do with her back.

It was the final straw and Caroline complained to HR about Mr Aitken and the questions.

But she accused In Touch – the care and support arm of Hyde – of not taking the matter seriously.

She said: "I was furious – I felt I was being penalised.

"I couldn't face them after that and they didn't show me much care or support.

"I hadn't cried when I first got diagnosed with cancer and I didn't cry when they told me they had to remove my breast.

"But I did cry over the way the company treated me – I cried every day for two months.

"I'm a strong person who's dealt with so much in my life but they kicked my feet from under me."

In Touch admitted last October Mr Aitken's remark had been "inappropriate and offensive" .

But they only apologised and said Caroline would have to go back to work with Mr Aitken.

A month later she quit, trading her £18,000 post for a £12,000 job 13 miles away.

Caroline said: "I'm hard-up today but now I enjoy going into work every day.


"They would never say anything to me like Gerry Aitken did.

"The way In Touch treated me still upsets me – it was sick."

She is now awaiting a date for a tribunal, where she will claim the firm made "unreasonable and unlawful demands and made her working life intolerable".

Caroline – who wants £18,000 for distress and lost earnings – said: "I want to show people they can't treat others like that."

In papers to the tribunal, In Touch accept Mr Aitken made the remark but insist an apology is sufficient.

They claim Ms Pruce did not laugh but made an "involuntary noise" and also refer to the number of sick days Caroline took.

They say she was not entitled to claim constructive dismissal and insist she has no right to compensation.

After The People tried to contact Mr Aitken and In Touch, Hyde Group said: "We can't comment because of ­ongoing legal proceedings."

But Caroline's solicitor Paul Grant – of Southampton firm Bernard Chill & Axtell – said: 'This case highlights the deep lack of understanding of the issues faced by not only cancer sufferers but survivors.

"Despite the considerable work of charities and the Government in recent years, comments such as those in this case clearly show their work is not yet complete."

Meanwhile, Caroline plans to take part in the four-mile Cancer Research Race For Life on July 10 in South-ampton as a way of saying thanks to staff at the South Hants and Salisbury hospitals who helped her recover

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