Sally Crossing was born in Melbourne at the beginning of 1946 – an early baby-boomer. Her mother was a librarian, and her father, an engineer by training, was managing director of a large management consulting business. The family spent some time in England, and moved to Sydney when Sally was 8 years old. She describes her childhood as happy. Although she had a brother, six years younger, Sally remembers feeling pretty very much an only child. She was bookish and liked to read and explore – ‘I was off on my own imagining adventures’.
Education was in ‘lots of different schools’ which Sally says ‘didn’t do her any harm’. Her secondary school years were at North Sydney Girls High School and then at Abbotsleigh for the last two years. After leaving school, Sally went to Sydney University where she lived at Women’s College – which she found a rich and exciting place, which later lead her to serving on its Council for several years. She had decided to study economics after meeting the eminent economist, Herman D Black, at one of her parent’s dinner parties, and he convinced her that this was the degree she should do. She says that it was a good choice, and that it would open doors.
Because there were few women economists at that time, Sally found that she had more job opportunities than if she had taken an Arts degree. At university she had developed a love of economic history, and her first job was at the Bank of New South Wales, where she helped the economist Reginald Holder to write the history of Australia’s first bank. In 1966 Sally moved to London where she lived for four years and was employed as an industrial market researcher. She also spent a year working for the Conservative Party’s Shadow Minister for Minerals and Energy.
Sally returned to Australia in 1970 and got a job on the UK Desk in the Reserve Bank. A year later she married Peter, and they moved to Griffith in NSW, which she says was ‘a change of pace’. Peter was working as a farm management consultant and Sally got a job as an English teacher in the local high school.
Peter then accepted a job in Iran, working for the government of the then Shah. Sally’s experience in marketing enabled her to work as a marketing expert with the same company. They lived in Tehran for a year, and frequently travelled to their project area in the north east of the country. She found that living and working in Iran was not difficult for a woman at that time – there were a lot of well educated, middle class women and the capital itself was very westernised.
After Tehran, Sally and Peter moved to Rome where they stayed for 8 years and where their children were born. Sally was a full time mother and student of things Italian (which she thoroughly enjoyed), until the last 2 years of their stay when she worked for the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The family returned to Australia in 1980 when the children were 6 and 4 years old. Sally was surprised at how hard it was to get the 4 year old into preschool, due to prevailing Australian philosophies – in Italy she had attended preschool since she was 2 years old.
In 1984 Sally got a part time job in the NSW Parliament – working for some of the Liberal Party’s Shadow Ministers. She says this was ‘a very exciting, lovely way to go back to work’. After the Greiner government was elected in 1988 she joined the staff of one of the ministers, which she says was ‘a strange world’. However, it taught her a lot about politics and how governments work. After 9 months she joined the NSW Department of Minerals and Energy where she worked on implementing the policies she had helped to develop while working for the Liberals when in Opposition. Her subsequent career within the NSW Public Service included being a Senior Policy Officer within the NSW Cabinet Office and Acting Director of Policy within the Department of Mineral Resources.
In 1995, when Sally was 49, she was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. This was a psychological shock which she ‘thought was the end of the world (it was not!’). She had surgery and radiotherapy, and carried on working for another 18 months. She had given a lot of thought to her experience of breast cancer, and wrote an article which was published by the newly formed National Breast Cancer Centre (NBCC) in their newsletter for clinicians. The NBCC had been formed in 1995 in response to a Senate Inquiry which found that breast cancer treatment in Australia was less than optimal and needed to improve.
The NBCC then invited Sally to participate in their 3 day course on consumer advocacy and science which was held in Melbourne. While there, she met Lyn Swinburne and Sue Lockwood, consumer advocates who had already established a breast cancer consumer advocacy organisation in Victoria. Lyn and Sue knew that a similar organisation was needed in NSW – so they asked Sally to take on the task.
It was a challenging decision for Sally. Her life was already full – she had a full time job, a husband and two children, a dog and two houses. She thought about it for a while and realised that it was an important thing to do. ‘I realised this was the sort of thing I could do, it needed to be done, I had the skills and understanding and I had the urge to do it.’
Sally was now in her early 50s, and, if she took this challenge on, it would mean a complete change in her working life. She would have to give up her paid job. Husband Peter was very supportive of the idea. He had a good salary and their lifestyle would not need to change. So, Sally resigned – a step she describes as ‘not hugely brave’. She ‘started off in a new direction of giving back and creating something that needed to be created.’ In retrospect she says that giving up her job was a ‘great relief’. It was giving her less satisfaction and she was interested in being able to use her skills, experience and ability for a better end.
Establishing a new organisation was a huge task – one which Sally had never had to do before. At times she would sit in her office and wonder what she had got herself into. The operational side was a totally new area of work for her, but other women were very supportive. The result of Sally’s work and the support of other women was that the Breast Cancer Action Group NSW was established in 1997, with Marie Bashir, Governor of NSW as its patron and major encourager.
Sally remembers their efforts at publicising the new organisation, and the need for good breast cancer care. She managed to get an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, accompanied by a photograph of 3 women in the NSW Art Gallery standing in front of a picture with nude breasts! As a result of that article about 100 people responded and a meeting to form the new organisation was held in Sally’s house with Lyn Swinburne and Sue Lockwood on hand to advise.
The organisation surveyed consumers, and heard many stories about the isolation that women felt, and the difficulty of finding the services and the information that they needed. People diagnosed with the disease did not know which way to turn, and their GPs were often equally uninformed. Although breast cancer is quite common, individual GPs do not see many patients with the disease – so they may not have the knowledge or experience to direct consumers to good quality services.
BCAG NSW decided to research and compile a directory of services to meet this unmet need, the NSW Breast Cancer Institute at Westmead Hospital joined them as a partner, with NSW Health providing initial funding. The AMA were firmly opposed and threatened to sue – but the women proceeded anyway.
It was a huge task, but the directory was received with enormous enthusiasm, and marked a milestone in the provision of consumer information. Sally describes it as a ‘sort of breakthrough’ at the time – they were able to obtain information about how many cases of breast cancer a doctor had treated in a year (an indicator of good quality as high turnover usually meant good outcomes). Sally now makes the point that privacy legislation is hindering attempts to update the directory, because the Health Insurance Commission which administers Medicare is no longer able to provide the de-identified information that the original directory relied upon, which, she says ‘is not a good consequence of privacy legislation’.
In 2005 Sally had a recurrence of breast cancer and reluctantly decided to have a mastectomy. During the preparatory work leading up to the surgery, she discovered that she also had 3 tumours in her liver. This was hard to digest, and she thought the advice given by a medical oncologist ‘that we will just give you a bit of chemo – and we’ll leave the tumours there to see how they respond’ to be not very convincing, so she turned her mind to investigating other options. She used the internet, and discovered that the liver is the only organ that can actually regrow, and that people can survive with only 20% of their liver. She and her husband then interviewed 3 liver surgeons, and found one who met the criteria she had developed when compiling the breast cancer directory. So, in late 2005 Sally had a mastectomy, followed two weeks later by surgery to remove the tumours in her liver. She says she did it ‘over the summer holidays so that it wouldn’t take up too much time from the year’.
Through her work on breast cancer, Sally had begun to realise that a lot of the issues confronting people with the disease were shared by all people with cancer. She says that ‘we had made such a lot of headway that it seemed to be useful to use what we had learned and apply it to other cancers’. She became involved in the establishment of another organisation to advocate on behalf of all people with cancer. Cancer Voices NSW, which Sally now chairs, was established in 2000. To mark its first ten years, Sally edited and published “A Decade of Success: Cancer Voices NSW 2000-2010”.The organisation runs advocacy and research training and supports consumer representatives on a range of committees. It has been influential in improving cancer diagnosis, treatment, care, information, support and the direction of cancer research in NSW and beyond.
Sally has also played a leading role in the broader health consumer movement. In 2008 she became the Vice Chair of the peak health consumer organisation, the Consumers’ Health Forum of Australia. She was also centrally involved in the establishment of a peak health consumer advocacy organisation in NSW.
Health Consumers NSW was established in 2010, with funding from NSW Health and with Sally as a Co-Chair, becoming elected Chair in 2011. Sally says the consumer organisations such as this are an important part of democracy. They are also an important element in a health market place. Every other business which has customers must take notice of what its customers need and want. ‘Health, until recently has not done that because of its medical model nature’. Consumers, she says ‘are not just using the services – they are actually paying for them. It doesn’t come from Nicola Roxon or someone else – it’s our money paying for it’. She goes on to say that ‘on the philosophical side, it’s also important that not only are individuals empowered to make good health decisions about themselves, but it’s also a democratic thing that we should be able to facilitate people to get together in a meaningful and productive way to take their rightful role in deciding what society is going to do about providing health services in both the public and private sectors.’
Sally has now been working in voluntary leadership positions for 14 years. She has used her own experience of illness and has learned from many others to inform her work. She says that she has lots of energy and is motivated by ‘the challenge of seeing that something could be done and then seeing it done – it is extremely rewarding’. The skills she developed during her professional life have been useful ‘particularly the knowledge about how things work’. Her work and her home life occasionally get out of balance but her family is supportive and she is passionate and loves the work she does.
Reflecting on her work, Sally says that she has always been more comfortable leading rather than being led and suggests that ‘maybe it’s because I’m the oldest child’. She likes to be able ‘to make things happen’ and her ‘urge to lead comes from an ability to make things happen’ and being ‘a bit of a driver’. She emphasises the importance of being prepared to learn from people who have done something similar.
Working collaboratively is something that Sally values. She describes herself as a collaborative leader – one who works with and learns from others. ‘Leaders’, she says, ‘should never have total confidence that they are right. Others may know a lot more than the leader. She also emphasises the importance of respecting the interests and skills of others, and ensuring that their talents are fully utilised. ‘The way we work is to spark off and learn from each other. It’s very rewarding and exciting to do it that way, and you can have confidence that you are doing the right thing – it’s not something you’ve plucked out of the air because you have a particular bee in your bonnet. That’s a big danger.’
Although Sally is not motivated by a need for accolades she was very pleased when, in 2005, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to the community through health consumer advocacy. She sees it as ‘a great acknowledgement that you have done something quite well’. She also sees the award as being useful and is strategic about its use. She says that ‘people being aware that you have the award can be very helpful. It’s an acknowledgement by your country that you have done something useful – so I make sure that it’s on the business card, put it on the bottom of letters to Ministers, and I wear it when I’m going to meetings.’
Sally’s advice to other women is that they need to find something that really ‘turns you on – for which you can develop a passion. Without a passionate commitment it’s not really going to go anywhere.’