Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Bronagh Corry

I was diagnosed with Primary Breast Cancer in August 2013 when I was 39 years old.   I had walked into the Breast Screening Clinic at 10am full of anxiety and dread.  By 1.30pm, I had a date for surgery and had entered the world of cancer.  The mammogram had shown 3 tumours in my right breast, so I had no option but to have a mastectomy, followed by 6 rounds of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy. I also had to have 18 rounds Hercetpin (thank you Barbara Clarke) as my cancer was HER2+ and was prescribed Tamoxifen for 5-10 years as my cancer was also ER+.  Belt and Braces…

At the time of my diagnosis I was working as a Learning Support Teacher in a secondary school.  I initially took 9 months off for my treatment, and returned to work in the June of 2014. At this time I was still attending my local hospital on a 3 weekly basis to have my Herceptin injection, so every 3 weeks I was reminded I was still a cancer patient, while in between I was trying to take back control of my life – or as I was regularly told – adjust to my ‘new normal’.  After struggling for a few months, I had to admit it to myself and my principal that I wasn’t ready to be back in a classroom of teenagers.  I had lost all confidence and self-belief.  I took another break from work for about 6 months, and after struggling through another year of teaching I started to look for another job.  In September 2016 I began working for my local EA as an Advisory Teacher for the Literacy Service.  I had found my ideal job, travelling around different schools working on a one-to-one basis with children who needed a little bit of support with their literacy skills.  A fresh start, no-one knew my past, I wasn’t looked at or treated any differently to anyone else, no weighted “how are you?” or that dreaded head tilt and sorrowful look.  I was moving on, I had packed away the cancer into a little corner of my life – of annual mammograms, it did not define me, it would just be a chapter in my life story …

I was loving my job, my 3 amazing children seemed to have come through the trauma of my cancer, life in my house was normal – the same as anyone else’s – busy with work, dinners, shopping, school runs, swimming lessons, gaelic training, birthdays and holidays.  I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the ‘here and now’.

Then in the June of 2019 I took a pain in my ribs, like every other ache and pain I have had since August 2013, I gave it 3 weeks and then went to my GP… On 4 July 2019 I had an x-ray to check my rib and was told by the radiographer I would get the results in 2 weeks.  4 hours later, at my desk in work, my mobile phone slipped out of my hand as my GP rang to say my rib was fine but there was something in my lung…  that’s how I was told… I just knew at that instant that it was back, all it had taken was one tiny cell to escape the chemo that poisoned my entire body, the radiotherapy that had burned my chest, the Herceptin that coursed through my veins for 18 months and the Tamoxifen that brought on a forced menopause… it had defied them all.

A haze of scans and appointments, words like Stage 4, Palliative Treatment, no surgery, metastases echoed in my ears, my brain, my heart and my soul.  No Belt and Braces, no surgery, no point…  It really had won.  Numerous little tumours in my right lung, and not long after, little cells in my neck…

Treatment started immediately with 4 weekly injections and a new hormonal treatment.  I went back to work, until I had to start on oral chemotherapy… no teaching or visiting schools when your immune system is taking a battering.  Devastated… But every cloud… I was able to do the school runs, cook decent dinners, focus on my family, live in the moment, create memories, and make the effort to make the most of the time I had.  But it wasn’t easy, it took me almost a year to learn to live my life instead of waiting to die.

I have an ongoing battle with my oral chemotherapy – it wrecks my white blood cells – treatment gets delayed, treatment changes.  I have had to start taking medication to cope with the rollercoaster of emotions.

And then Covid came along… my cancer treatment was paused for 7 weeks – I tried not to let my thoughts spiral, everyone else was talking about Covid – I was trying to deal with the fact my cancer cells were in party mode… (but again, I tried to look at the positives, I was gifted this time to be with my husband and children – I was loving it – I was used to having no control over my life so lockdown was and still is no big deal to me).  My life has been in a lockdown of sorts since 2013!

I had now been off work for over 6 months I had to start thinking about early retirement – there was nothing else for it… or was there? I got a call from my line manager one day in May of 2020 – how would I feel about coming back to work (the rest of the team were working from home – maybe I could too)  I was ecstatic – I felt I still had something to contribute to my work.  So since May of 2020, I have been on my laptop at my kitchen table, surrounded by the kids as they navigate Google Classroom, ask me what time is lunch/dinner at, complain about the wifi and fill their wash baskets at an alarming rate.  

I have been writing reports, creating on-line support documents for pupils and teachers, contributing to our on-line teaching resources, and recently I have been doing a little bit of on-line teaching, but most importantly, I have been made to feel of value, my opinions and ideas count, I am still part of the team.  

I may be “Clinically Extremely Vulnerable”, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to write an advisory report for a child who needs some ideas and strategies to help them cope with their literacy difficulties, or create a Virtual Classroom and have weekly lessons with pupils…  I have been completely supported by my employers – whether it be a regular phone-call from my line manager to have a well-being catch-up, to attending some EA wide Mindfulness or Managing Stress Webinars.  I have been accommodated to attend my numerous medical appointments (4 weekly oncology and bloods appointments, 3 monthly scans, mammograms, GP appointments and any other appointments that crop up).  This has been one of the most important things for me so that I can go to these appointments guilt free.  On those days I am able to completely focus on my health care, rather than feel I need to be ‘at work’.

I still have my moments of reality – I am on cancer treatment for life – however long or short that may be.  I try to take things one day at a time, I try not to think too far into the future. I don’t know if I will see my youngest start big school, I don’t know if I will be here to celebrate my 50th but I do know I am here now.  I feel well, my treatment is keeping things ‘stable’, I have no cancer symptoms or pain.

So my advice about working with Cancer?  Listen to your oncologist. Talk to your employer, talk to the Health and Wellbeing team (or HR team) in your organisation – find out what they can offer you, tell them what you feel you need (EG flexi-time, reduced hours, working from home, wellbeing support).  Listen to your body. Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Allow yourself time to rest.  Eat well.

Cancer already takes away so much, so if you still want to work and feel able to do so then go for it.  Don’t let the cancer take away the power you have – I am living proof of that.