Barbers are at the centre of a new project by Macmillan Cancer Support, designed to create safe spaces for clients to discuss cancer

The charity is collaborating with 11 barber shops across London to take advantage of the long relationships clients often have with their barbers, and to encourage them to talk about cancer’s impact.

Hair Force 1, with locations in Ilford and Romford, has been involved for about six months, and founder Anderson Boyce is adamant that it’s making a difference. “Cancer has been such a difficult conversation for men for a long time, and we were able to sort of bridge that gap,” he explains.

“Some of the information we hear from clients, we’re realising: ‘Hang on a second, you’re feeling more comfortable with us barbers than you are with your own wives, parents, the people that are closest to you’. Yet they’re not getting the information first. We raise awareness, point people in the right direction, instil confidence in people who had a lack of confidence in services such as Macmillan Cancer Support. It just became an easy equation to solve.”

Anderson received training from Macmillan on areas including how to broach the conversation around cancer, how to keep participants engaged, and what not to say when you engage in a conversation. He has then passed on that information to fellow barbers, who are now a part of the group. “It’s just that understanding of how to approach conversation with somebody who might be in that situation,” he says.

“We’d like to think we have had some impact. We’ve had numerous people come in that weren’t really comfortable going to loved ones. But when they came to us, I signposted them to Macmillan, and they’re now in touch with the right services and are able to receive the right treatment.”

Hair Force 1 barbers

He’s quick to point out the framework within which barbers like himself should operate. “We’re not medically trained by any stretch of the imagination; it is about raising the bar of awareness, signposting services, and just getting people to the right places and the right services in a timely fashion. Because as we all know, with something like cancer, time is everything.”

How can barbers and stylists approach such a conversation around cancer? Anderson points to “desensitising” the subject. “When I say desensitisation of the topic, that means bringing it back down to a place where it’s okay to have the discussion,” he explains. “That was a big hurdle and a big barrier for us prior to getting into any conversation. It was having people open up and being comfortable enough to engage. We still see people who are very, very closed, whose confidence is very low.

The team of barbers at work inside Hair Force 1 barbershop
“I would always lean on the side of positivity,” he adds. “Steer well clear of the doom and gloom – you have to keep the conversation as positive as possible, picking and choosing your words in accordance with that. Irrespective of somebody’s medical condition, you want to try and have some impact on their mental wellbeing. You want them to leave that engagement as happy and as positive as possible, with a laugh and a smile wherever you can. That has a major impact for us.”

Lee Townsend, London engagement lead for Macmillan, also spotlights the importance of the project in terms of reaching minority ethnic communities.

The reluctance to talk about cancer in minority communities is a complex issue, linked to poorer treatment outcomes for patients from non-white backgrounds. “Barbershops are key pillars in black communities and projects such as these bring Macmillan’s cancer expertise right to the heart of our local communities in London – particularly to groups that we traditionally may not have connected with as much as we’d have liked,” he says.

Not everyone has the time to visit the GP or they might have worries they don’t want to discuss with friends and family, which is where such a project can be so vital. “With this barbershop network, we are creating a space where minority communities can engage freely in a safe environment,” adds Lee. “We also want to make people aware that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to mean a death sentence and we want to help dispel some myths and taboos around the disease – it’s crucial to get people talking and ensure that everyone knows Macmillan Cancer Support is right there with them, so that no one struggles in silence.”