Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Di Hart

I was originally diagnosed with stage III HER2+ breast cancer in December 2015 and subsequently went through 6 rounds of chemotherapy, an operation to remove the tumour in my breast and full lymph node clearance, followed by 18 sessions of radiotherapy and a year of monoclonal antibodies. We had a double whammy in the family, as my darling Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer two weeks after my initial diagnosis, unfortunately, he passed away in August of 2017.  In August of 2018, I was on holiday with my family in Turkey, and thought the cough I developed was just a summer cold, however I ended up being admitted to a hospital on an IV antibiotic drip after falling ill.  Seeing my Oncologist on my return to the UK, she immediately ran some tests and that’s when we found out my breast cancer was back and had metastasised to my lungs and bones.  The tumour in my left lung was 4.5cm with lots of lesions in both lungs.  I also had several Mets in my bones, which caused me to fracture my pelvis getting out of bed one morning. Due to all my headaches around this time, my Oncologist couldn’t rule out a spread to my brain, so they told me to go home and get my affairs in order. This was one of the darkest days of my life.  Thankfully, my brain scan was clear, and the headaches were the result of stress.  Two and a half years later and my latest scan showed no evidence of active disease, which means I have no sign cancer in my lungs or bones, so my prognosis is now undetermined.  

I love walking my two dogs and have recently taken up photography again.  I see the world through very different eyes now, so I find it very cathartic.  I’ve got a renewed focus on my health so am also enjoying cooking and started back running in 2019. I completed 100 km’s for Breast Cancer NOW in October, raising over £5,000.  My Partner Richard, my daughters and family have been amazing despite the pain and anguish he and my family have been through over the past 5 years.  Often the family of cancer patients are forgotten and are left to deal with the fall out themselves.  The pressure on them to work, run the home and be Carers often goes unnoticed and unsupported.  This is also something that needs to be recognised and addressed.   

I’ve worked in Technology all my life.  It’s a fast-paced environment and no two days are the same.  I love how we are seeing technology used for an array of progressive goodness in the world, from sustainability to manufacturing.  It’s exciting to see how it’s changing our world and it enables me to keep learning, growing and encourages me to ask better questions of myself.  I was off work whilst I was on chemotherapy as I was sick, but now I’m well and on monoclonal antibody infusions every three weeks, it seemed the most natural thing to do to go back to work.

My mental health took a huge hit.  Being told you have a terminal disease in your 40’s took it’s toll.  I am extremely grateful that I am healthy and have now found good coping mechanisms, prioritising my resilience and wellbeing daily through exercise, meditation and a balanced diet.  Whilst we all agree that COVID has been such a tragic event, it has brought mental health into clear focus which can only help improve the support and treatment of those affected.  I am a staunch mental health advocate, and openly discuss the struggles I’ve faced over the last 5 years to encourage people to speak up when they can.  It’s the only way we can remove the stigmatism attached to this debilitating condition.

I am extremely fortunate to work for an organisation that not only harnesses diversity and inclusion, but drives it as part of our culture. I am very open about my health, and in turn my colleagues are open with me and will often engage in an open dialogue regarding my health.  I think some of the challenges I have faced has been more about how I viewed myself coming back to work.  My outlook has changed, and I struggled in the beginning with cognitive memory challenges which made me question my abilities. Giving myself time, being patient with myself, and having a great Boss I am so much more confident now.  I have also been able to join my DisAbility ERG Group at work, with a goal to have disability viewed as a normal part of how we work. Leaders, Managers and individual contributors alike will know what to do about disability, whether permanent or temporary, visible or invisible, disclosed or not.  Playing a small part in this vision, gives me a great sense of achievement and proves that change can happen.

Be patient and have regular check ins with your Occupational Health / HR advisor.  Be honest with yourself about what you can commit too, and make sure you communicate your needs clearly to OH/HR as you figure them out.  Don’t expect your employer to have all the answers. Most companies can accommodate some flexibility, but you’ll need to work with your employer to find out what works for you both.  

Unfortunately, working whilst having Cancer is a topic that’s not consistently or adequately addressed. With an increase in cancer diagnoses in the working age group, as well as advances in cancer treatments, we will see more people and companies in this situation.  It should be part of every organisations D&I policy, but sadly it’s still not recognised by many companies, and many people I know are being discriminated against.  I’ve been very lucky, but if you find yourself in this situation its important you and your employer seek adequate advice and guidance.