Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Heather Cripps

I was diagnosed straight to metastatic breast cancer in September 2020, with spread to my bones and peritoneum.  The nine months before the diagnosis I suffered with lower back pain, which got progressively worse each month (about a week before my period was due).  I had seen my GP and been referred for physio, which made no difference.  I went to A&E twice, but my condition was never considered serious enough to raise any red flags for referral.  Eventually, I paid for an MRI scan, which flagged up an issue with my bone marrow.  From that point on, things moved quickly.  I was referred to haematology via the two-week cancer pathway, and had a whole array of tests and scans.  It was the haematology consultant who told me that I had breast cancer.  She had already arranged for me to see the breast cancer consultant an hour later.  

I have invasive lobular carcinoma breast cancer – which is sneaky as it doesn’t grow in a lump and doesn’t always show up on a mammogram.  I had a mammogram and ultrasound after seeing the consultant – my mammogram didn’t show the cancer, even though by then it was in both breasts (and had spread to my bones).  Biopsies were taken to determine the type of cancer I had and to help decide my treatment plan.  My cancer is oestrogen positive (which explains why my lower back pain followed my monthly cycle).  I am on my first line of treatment, which is letrozole (hormone blocker), palbociclib (oral chemotherapy), plus a monthly infusion of zometa to help my bones, and a quarterly injection of leuprorelin.  I am incurable but treatable.

I am 44 years old, married with two young girls.  Before my back pain last year (and the Covid lockdown), I was a keen recreational runner and would do parkrun every Saturday morning.  I would also run during the week if time allowed, between work and family life.  I ran the London marathon in April 2017, and hope to one day be able to run a marathon again.

I have worked as a civil servant for over 21 years, at the Home Office.  I currently head up a workforce management team, ensuring we have the right people in the right roles to enable delivery of key services to our stakeholders.

The main challenge I have faced working with cancer is a personal one.  I feel like I am not able to deliver against my objectives as well as I did before, and having to take time off for treatment leaves others to pick up my workload on those days.  Also, my treatment didn’t always go to plan and sometimes got delayed, for example, if my neutrophil levels were too low, or when I tested positive for Covid!  I kept having to change my days off, which I found frustrating, and again this made me feel like I was letting people down by having to cancel or change meetings.

My line managers have been very supportive and accommodating of my needs, since the first day that I told them that I had cancer.  They allow me to take the time off that I need for appointments and treatment, and any recovery days I need afterwards.  They tell me not to worry about work while I am out of the office, and we have made some changes to my team to provide additional support and resilience.  This helps me to worry less about work when I should be focusing on my treatment.

The civil service also has a Working Through Cancer network, set up by some Home Office staff who had recently been diagnosed.  This staff support network has been helpful to me when I reached out to them following diagnosis.  They put me in contact with other staff who are working with breast cancer, who shared with me their stories and how they were managing.  I hope to be able to provide the same support to others who are newly diagnosed.

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