On 18th March 2018, while visiting London from my home in the Netherlands, I was discriminated against by the Mandara Spa inside the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge hotel. I was not discriminated against because of my age, gender identity, or sexual orientation. I was not discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. Rather, I was refused service because I had been treated for cancer within the last 5 years, a deeply humiliating experience that left me feeling dejected, and sadly, one that appears to be all-too-common within the UK wellness industry.
A few years ago, I had just been promoted and was living my dream. I was travelling around Europe doing a job that I loved. I suffered a particularly nasty cold while my husband was away visiting family. When I recovered I noticed that my walking felt funny- it was like my legs weren’t quite doing what I expected them to. Over the course of the three months it took to get a referral and an appointment with a specialist, I gradually lost the ability to walk. By the time I was diagnosed with Paraneoplastic Cerebellar Degeneration, a devastating neurological syndrome caused by an auto-immune response to an underlying cancer, my balance and coordination were severely impaired. I had developed a tremor on my right side and I was weak- I could barely hold a drink without spilling it. My speech was slurred and I had difficulty communicating. I had no energy. Worst of all, the information available online was sparse. My condition is rare and most of the people it affects are much older. No one could give me a prognosis, and my research wasn’t giving me much hope. I was terrified.
At first, the doctors couldn’t find any cancer. The focus of my treatment was on the suppression of my immune system. The treatments helped stabilize my neurological condition, but there was no improvement. The doctors kept investigating and eventually found metastasized cancer cells in my armpit. There was no primary tumour, but the type of syndrome I have meant that my cancer most likely originated in my breast. I went through chemotherapy and radiation, and elected to have my breasts removed to minimize the chances of any residual cancer cells causing progression of my symptoms.
Today, I am cancer-free, which theoretically means there shouldn’t be any further neurological deterioration, but no one can say for sure. I just finished a rehabilitation program that’s given me back some of my strength and energy. I’m able to walk short distances with the help of a rollator. I can speak more clearly and have short conversations. My disability makes it impossible for me to work, but I’m adjusting to a new lifestyle. The trip to London was a test run for my husband and I, our first step toward getting back to doing the things we love. After nearly three years of constant specialist appointments, hospital admissions, treatments, stress and uncertainty, all I wanted was a little bit of long overdue luxury and relaxation. Being refused service from the hotel spa wasn’t just humiliating, it was like having my old life taken away from me all over again.
I’m not the only victim of this type of disability discrimination. A series of articles published by the Daily Mail earlier this year illustrate how pervasive this discriminatory treatment of cancer patients is within the UK wellness industry. Estimates suggest that up to 70% of UK spas have strict no-massage policies for clients who have been diagnosed with or treated for cancer within a certain period of time, despite the British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology and every major cancer organization in the UK confirming that there’s no scientific evidence to support the myth that massages can spread cancer. The UK Equality Act clearly states that it is unlawful to refuse service to someone with a disability that’s otherwise available to the general public. So my husband and I have decided to challenge the hotel spa’s discriminatory policy in court.
The way some UK spas are treating people is unacceptable. It’s illegal. No one should have to suffer the indignity of being refused service, especially not those who are fighting for their lives or who have overcome such overwhelming struggles. More than 50% of the UK population will develop a cancer at some point in their lives. If you are as horrified as I am at the possibility of all those people facing this type of discrimination, there are several ways for you to lend your support:
1. Share my story on social media. Tell people what you think. Help start the conversation. Change doesn’t come without awareness.
2. Ask your local spa about their policies regarding treating people who have cancer. If they have no-massage policies, ask them why. Ask them to do some research. Tell them that their policies may be discriminatory. If they don’t want to listen, go somewhere else.
3. If you can, make a small donation to my Crowd Justice campaign, and help us challenge disability discrimination in the UK wellness industry.
For more information about about the benefits of massage therapy for cancer patients,visit http://tpot.org.uk. For more information about Paraneoplastic Neurological Syndromes and my journey in particular, visit https://pns-pcd.com.