Changing the conversation about work and cancer


I’m a person who has always been “well”.  Whenever I was asked to fill in a health questionnaire I’d always tick “no” without really reading it. That all changed in late January 2018 when aged 44 I was diagnosed very speedily with a rare type of breast cancer called Inflammatory Breast Cancer. It’s very aggressive and in about half of all cases has already spread when diagnosed.  A week later I discovered it was also in my bones, meaning that it was treatable but not curable.

I’ve always been a very busy and active person.  I have 2 primary school aged children, my husband and I have always loved travelling, and I’ve worked at a senior level in the Civil Service for many years.  My initial response to my diagnosis was to keep going. That meant I worked through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, taking a few weeks off for surgery. My employer was fantastic, offering pastoral support and making it clear that it was totally my choice how much I chose to work. My immediate line manager and colleagues were very patient with me when chemotherapy in particular meant my working patterns were rather erratic! They even put in place a job share arrangement to take the pressure off me.

Thanks to an amazing medical team, I’ve not had any active disease since my initial treatment.  I continued for a year beyond then in the same role, but I found that the side effects of ongoing (lifelong) treatment became harder to manage.  I feel I’m not as “sharp” as I once was, and I suffer from fatigue.  Exercise helps my aches and pains but I was frustrated that I didn’t have the flexibility to do that when I needed.  I was managing a team of 90 based in a number of locations and I felt they were suffering because travelling was exhausting me.   

Once again my employer was brilliant and we agreed that I would move to a project based role without any staff management responsibilities. It works well – I work 29 hours a week but am able to be in charge of my own schedule, and I feel I’m still contributing, albeit this isn’t what I envisaged in the early days of my career. It’s not been plain sailing especially with the extra pressures of Covid as context. I was off work for a couple of months with anxiety last year. I do feel it can be tricky because I don’t talk in detail to the majority of my colleagues about my diagnosis. They know I’ve had cancer but not that it is incurable. I want to be open but I wouldn’t be comfortable going into that level of detail as I’d worry that it would change the way my colleagues interact with me.

I’ve realised with the support of counselling too that my default habit of just keeping going on and pretending everything is fine was not going to be good for my mental health in the long term, and while working gives me an important sense of identity outside my family and my illness, it needs to play a new role in my life.