Cancer and work – with treatment lasting months on end, and side effects long after, cancer can take a huge toll on your career. This is my story about how cancer affected my career.
When I first found my lump, I mentioned it to my boss and she was fantastic, making me book an appointment to get it checked out, and nagging me when I took my sweet time in doing so. She was so supportive that the day I got my diagnosis, one of my first calls was to her.
In the following weeks, as the whirlwind of appointments, scans and treatment schedules picked up, my work continued to be amazing – whatever I needed, I got. Stubborn mare that I am, I was determined that cancer would not affect one of the most important things in my life – my career.
Working through treatment
I worked out a plan, bloods on a Wednesday and work from home for the rest of the day, Thursday was treatment day, Friday was recovery day, back to work on a Monday. We agreed that on my days in the office, I would travel outside of rush hour to avoid having to run the “lurgy gauntlet” that is commuting in to Central London. The first couple of rounds of chemo this plan went well – but in a high pressure sales director role, it was not all smooth sailing.
The memory of a particularly arduous all-day client meeting, in a stuffy windowless meeting room, whilst battling extreme nausea, still gives me flashbacks of anxiety. Not long after this, my boss started suggesting that I work from home more, and even though I didn’t really want to, I went along with it, aware that my natural personality finds it hard to ask for help, and my stubbornness can get in the way of my best interests.
Chemo brain was kicking in hard, and I struggled to keep on top of what was going on in the office, or even remember some of the conversations I had with my team. But the more I worked from home, the more I felt out the loop. My boss encouraged me to stay home more and more, and my work was redistributed to other people in my team, whilst I was given “special projects” to work on, and kept well away from clients. I felt so rubbish from treatment by this point, that it was a relief to take a step back from the pressure of my normal role.
Once chemo was finished, I went away on holiday with my family, and returned ready to crack on and get back to work, with a full plan of action about how I would handle my upcoming surgery and radiotherapy, and balance treatment with work. I walked into the office, and the first thing I noticed, other than the fact that my desk had moved, was that my team were acting shiftily with me. I was ushered into a meeting room, where my boss explained that the company was concerned about my well-being, and with surgery and radiotherapy still to come, they had arranged interim cover and wanted me to just take the time off and focus on my treatment and getting better. My pay would not be affected, and I should take as long as I needed, coming back once all treatment was complete.
Instead of implementing my brilliant plan of how I would handle the next steps, instead I found myself going to my Doctor and asking for a fit note signing me off from work, so that I would be eligible for full pay.
I was gutted, absolutely devastated from the rejection, and my confidence shaken to the core. Replaced. All because of this stupid disease that seemed intent on fucking up every area of my life.
My career had always been a fundamental part of how I identified myself. I’d gone back to work when my children were tiny, and sacrificed so much over the years for my career, that this felt like a punch in the gut. I think in part, this is the point where my mental health took a downturn.
I was bored at home, with nothing to do but focus on my cancer. It’s no wonder I found radiotherapy so difficult, I had little to focus on other than how crap I felt, and all the while, life in the office carried on without me. I had members of my team calling me to tell me how much they hated my interim replacement, and a strategy day that I was initially promised an invite to (as I would be instrumental in actually delivering the strategy) suddenly had the date changed and took place without me even being aware that it had happened. Keep in touch calls skimmed over everything, and I felt completely cut out, isolated and frustrated by the whole thing. If you want a lesson in how not to handle a long-term employee absence, I have notes galore!
Going back to work after treatment
After radiotherapy finished, I was on the floor – physically, emotionally and mentally. The thought of going back to work sent me in to a spin of anxiety. I wasn’t ready. I needed more time. I made excuses, and it was easy to get this backed up by the Doctor with continued fit notes. Two months post-treatment, my husband started getting annoyed at me – he couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to get back to normal, and started nagging me to go back to work. We argued. I lost.
Time to head back to work. I spoke with my boss and we set in place a phased return, initially starting with a couple of days per week, and then phasing back to full time over the following two months. Ironically, having been on full pay throughout my time off, at the point where I went back to work, my pay was cut to reflect my part-time hours, so I ended up using a fair amount of my accumulated leave to manage my phased return without too much impact on my salary.
But the physical impact was much greater. In less than a month I was back to 4 days a week, and shortly afterwards, was full-time. Chemo brain was still making it’s presence felt, and given that a lot of my team had left in my absence, I found myself with a new team, feeling stupid when I forgot information and conversations. I wanted to scream at them “this isn’t me, this is the treatment! I’m not crap at my job!” It takes a certain level of balls, and unshakeable self-belief to be a good Sales Director in what is still a pretty male dominated environment – I felt like I had lost both along with my credibility in my time off.
That strategy day that I had missed, had left me with a legacy of a strategy that I fundamentally disagreed with, and yet had no choice but to try to implement. I would find myself walking on to the train in the evening so exhausted that I wasn’t sure if I was about to puke or pass out with fatigue. And a combination of all of these things, put my confidence on the floor.
I broached the idea of working from home one day or week, or even going to compressed hours, working 4.5 days in 4. My boss quickly shot them down, and told me that “now wasn’t the right time” to put in a flexible working request, even though she herself worked part-time and with one day a week from home, as had my interim cover. So I carried on. I was miserable.
I was exhausted, run-down and my confidence was in pieces. I asked my boss one day for feedback and she said “you don’t seem to have the same energy you had before” No shit sherlock! It is almost like my body was brutalised for 8 months straight in order to battle a genuinely life-threatening disease. I’m so sorry that I don’t always seem like my sparky old self!
The mental impact of cancer on my career
On top of it all, my work lacked meaning in my post-cancer world, and I struggled to see what the point of it all was. On reflection, I know now that I was seriously depressed but covering it up and carrying on.
Rather than trying to understand what was going on, and despite the fact that I had previously consistently delivered for over 3 years, and was still hitting my targets despite all of this, at the end of September I was made redundant. All very logical reasons. All perfectly plausible. With a nice little payout that would basically keep me covered for 6 months. It would almost be believable except for the fact that less than 5 months later, they brought in someone in to do exactly the same job.
But at the time, I was relieved! In fact, I would go as far as to say I was happy. And then the buzz wore off and I was destroyed. My mental health crashed, no reason to even try to keep going now. No reason to get out the house. I spent two months in my dressing gown, barely able to leave the sofa. I realised this couldn’t continue, and on self referral started some CBT sessions. This, in combination with getting myself back to the gym, gradually got me back on my feet.
Moving forward after cancer
I started working more on LTB, but knew I was going to have to go back to work in order to pay the bills. I had no idea what I wanted to do now, and was scared about heading back in to a soulless sales role, working myself to the bone for a company that didn’t give a toss, and would just take, take, take everything I had to offer and more. I was scared about giving up my carefully won back mental health, and was worried about going back to work full-time. With money fast running out, and no jobs on the horizon, I ended up taking a job at Marks & Spencer. From managing a full sales team and being responsible for several million pounds of revenue to stacking shelves in a food hall. How the mighty fall!
It was about this time that (as previously mentioned) I heard on the grapevine that my role had been replaced, I was livid! Here I was, struggling to make ends meet, and meanwhile, I had been casually replaced at the company that I had given blood, sweat and tears to. I seriously considered contacting an employment lawyer, going as far as making the initial phone call, and then decided that my mental health and precious energy reserves were just not worth it. Let them crack on! I guess this is how companies continue to get away with this stuff, but seriously, I have more important things to focus on and just want to move on with my life.
How flexible working has helped me back to work
I came across a role working for a phenomenal company called Timewise – a social enterprise that works to champion flexible working, and help employers with flexible roles and individuals looking for flexibility to connect. I got in touch, and what initially started as a lower level contract role, has now developed to a permanent position. I now work 4 days a week, back in a sales director role, which allows me to pay my bills whilst also working one day a week on LTB.
My employers are flexible, supremely understanding, and seem to value what I have to offer. I have taken a pay cut due to the reduced hours, which has meant some major lifestyle changes, but I also have balance and purpose, which makes it worth it. I still have a serious case of chemo-brain, but am learning how to work around it – basically everything gets written down! My employers are aware of, and accommodating of this situation – communication has been key. My confidence is slowly rebuilding, and I am starting to redefine who I am, and what my career is all about.Nearly two years post-treatment, and 1 year post-redundancy, I am starting to find myself again.
I am obviously angry about what happened with my last company, and resent the stress and financial pressure that my family has been put through, at a time when we really, really didn’t need it. My savings are wiped out completely, and the unfairness of the situation really sticks in my throat at times – writing this down now, all the feelings of hurt, rejection and anger resurface, and I can feel my stress-levels rising.
However, I am also thankful for where I am right now. I approach my career differently. My family, health and well-being are the most important things to me these days. I will never sacrifice these things again for a company that quite frankly don’t give a toss. I no longer check my emails at 6.30 in the morning when I first get up, and if I have a day off, then I have a day off. If someone desperately needs me, then they have my number, but I could count on one finger the amount of times this has actually happened. Does this make me a bad employee – no! Does this make me any less effective at my job – no!
Does the fact that I have flexibility and balance make me a happier person – yes 100%! The last couple of years have been really tough – in many, many ways. But I love my portfolio career and the flexibility that I know I am very fortunate to have, and wouldn’t go back for the world!
At one point I thought cancer had ruined my career, these days I consider that it has made it.
I now know that my previous employer breached several of my employment rights after I was diagnosed – from putting me on leave, to the outright refusal of considering flexible options to make it more manageable, to the redundancy/subsequent replacement situation. As soon as you are diagnosed with cancer, and even after treatment has finished, you are protected by discrimination laws. If you need to know more about your employment rights Macmillan have a useful guide, and support line for free advice 0800 808 0000
If you are looking for a flexible role post-cancer then Timewise Jobs is a great place to start, every role on the site is flexible – even if it is full-time, and they are all proper jobs with no franchises, commission-only or zero hour contracts allowed.
If you find yourself needing to make a claim to a tribunal if you have been discriminated against because of your cancer, then there is more information on Gov.uk