Interview with Cancer Relief CEO Gráinne McKenna

In April, the Barzilai Foundation announced the launch of a new initiative in collaboration with Cancer Relief Gibraltar. The initiative provides emergency support to cancer patients facing financial hardship and extends the holistic cancer care support system Cancer Relief ( has been building since its launch in 1983.

The Barzilai Foundation sat down with Gráinne McKenna, CEO of Cancer Relief, to discuss the charity, its impact, and its collaboration with the Barzilai Foundation.

Tell us about Cancer Relief and the work your team does.

We provide direct cancer support and care to patients affected by cancer and their families within Gibraltar. We have a very holistic, whole-person approach. We provide complimentary therapy for personal well-being, and we provide nursing care.

What we want to do is introduce a physiotherapy support program that would complement the existing local health authority services. It's about setting up our very own rehabilitation service, even for cancer patients that haven't started treatment yet: prehabilitation. You have received a diagnosis of cancer and you haven't started your cancer treatment; we want to help you be as ready and as fit as you can be in order to be able to handle that treatment. We're really excited about it.

What was the inspiration behind adding this physiotherapy prehabilitation service to the landscape?

There is so much research now on the benefits of prehabilitation and cardiovascular work going into life in general, but also going into any sort of treatment that's going to put a lot of pressure on your body. And before you go into something as demanding as cancer treatment, it can help your overall outcomes, so it was something that we’ve been very passionate about wanting to do for a long time.

Let’s talk about that pressure. How do you show up in a cancer patient’s life, given the pressure and challenges they face?

Our aim is to give the person a sense of control over what is happening to them, and rehabilitation especially in a Prehabilitation programme we use a three-pronged approach. First, we look at promoting healthy behaviors; they’re proven to be most effective in creating positive health outcomes. They help patients take an active role in their cancer care and live as well as possible with and beyond cancer. Then you look at emotional and psychological well-being and your own personal coping behaviors.

Ideally, you want this to be implemented from diagnosis, before treatment starts, to have the maximum benefit. We’d like to see prehabilitation as part of the continuum of your care. You get diagnosed, you’re automatically referred into a prehabilitation program, we support you through your treatment, post-treatment, and beyond. If you decided to run a marathon, you wouldn't do it without training. So why shouldn't we do the same for going into something as physically and mentally demanding as cancer treatment?

And that's the whole ethos of prehabilitation. It's about optimizing a person's overall health and well-being in order to maximize their resilience to treatment and enhance recovery. We know it can improve patients’ outcomes, and that's what we're all about.

You’re also interested in setting the standards for best practices for cancer support. What does that look like?

We would like to aim for prehabilitation to become the norm for your cancer planning, from day one. First thing, we're going to enroll you in a prehabilitation program to get you ready and prepared. We don’t have the opportunity for that right now.

In the longer term, the possible impact is twofold. First, it's patients who may have changes in their long-term habits, even when their cancer treatment is finished, and they’re recovered. Second, you have overall benefits for the community and for the health authority. If you can get a healthier, more proactive community, you could reduce health costs in the long run. It has a ripple effect, because when a person makes changes to be healthier, their loved one generally changes their habits too, and from there it can ripple into the community. Especially in such a close community like Gibraltar.

Our community is amazing. When people take something into their heart as theirs, we really run with it. I think this is something that we could get established. It could have long-term impacts for health across the board.

Let’s talk about working with the Barzilai Foundation. The Foundation aims to actively work with partners rather than just being a financial sponsor. Have you seen that in the partnership?

I would definitely agree with that. Brandon [Sosa, Barzilai Foundation CEO] has been amazing. You feel like we're the only one he is supporting, which is fantastic. For me, it's not just about financial assistance. It's wonderful to be able to have conversations with Brandon about ideas, and you can get guidance, so I find it quite a partnership in that way, which is really lovely. It's quite unique. You don't normally get that, most of the time. I really feel like it’s a shared partnership, and that that they're investing in us to succeed with the project.

The Foundation focuses on situations where they can help people overcome obstacles and get back to pursuing their goals. How is that going to come to life in this program?

It was perfect, because sometimes you get financial investment but no follow-through, and that's definitely not the way it is with the Barzilai Foundation. This project matches us really well. We're all about empowerment, and the Barzilai Foundation is about empowering people to take control of their life. And this is exactly what rehabilitation and prehabilitation is about.

What would you tell your peers or another organization about the experience you've had with the Barzilai Foundation so far?

Go for it! What's stopping you? From my experience, you would not be disappointed with the investment and support you get. As I said, it's much more than a financial support. You may even gain a long-term supporter. You can really work with the foundation to help you see your vision to the end.