Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Kris Chadwick

Hi, I’m Kris, I’m 44 years old and I’m coming up to my three year “incurable cancer diagnosis.”

In September 2017 my life was just about back on track following the death of my husband to a brain tumour in 2013.  I’d needed a fresh start after he passed so left my job at Oxford University and moved to London to be nearer my sister.  I struggled to find another rewarding job but by September 2017 I secured myself a project manager role at the newly established Business School at King’s College London.  My career was back on track.

It came as a shock when I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in March 2018.  My line managers were so supportive and gave me time off to attend all the appointments and scans and to get my head around the shock of my “incurable” diagnosis.  They agreed to let me work flexibly so I could work from home in between appointments and I booked leave for the days after my first round of chemotherapy.

Initially I intended to work as much as I could while on chemo.  I thought it would be a good distraction however following my first round of chemo, I quickly realised it was too much.  I couldn’t concentrate on work, everything that was going on and have the head space to do everything I needed to do to get myself better.   I ended up having 10 months off work which saw me through my chemo, surgery, radiotherapy and a bit of recuperation.

I was so nervous about my first day back in the office.  How would people treat me?  Would they remember me?  I left my role sporting a blonde bob but was returning with a short grey crop.  The team had expanded massively so there were lots of new faces.  I wanted the new people to meet me and get to know me first before they knew that I was living with incurable cancer as I didn’t want cancer to define me.  However, just about the only things that were going on in my life were all cancer related so I found it hard to join in conversations at first.

I wanted to return to work as I loved my job and it gave me a real sense of purpose.  Having had 10 months off with little or no routine, occupational health advised a phased return.  This really helped me return without needing to take any further sick days.  Work also made various adjustments to support my return to work.  With my bone metastasis, I’m not supposed to carry anything heavy. Rather than have me carry my laptop around with me, work provided me with three laptops: a laptop to keep at home for working from home days, and two laptops and lockers so I could store them in the buildings I used most frequently.  Work also supported my claim for Access to Work so I could get a taxi home from the station on the days I was just too tired to walk.

In my mind I associated a return to work as a return to normality.  On my full days back in the office I made plans to meet up with friends after work.  However I’d inevitably end up cancelling those plans as I’d be exhausted after a day at work.  I realised I now had a new normal and I could work or I could socialise but I couldn’t manage both.  My socialising is now limited to one day at the weekend.

As my cancer is incurable, I continue to have treatment every third Wednesday.  Pre-Covid, Wednesday was my working from home day which meant my treatment wouldn’t interrupt any face to face meetings.  As I work for King’s College and my treatment is at a King’s College Hospital, I can bring my laptop in, connect to the wifi and continue to work while the machine drips my lifesaving drugs into my veins – it helps pass the time!

You lose so much when you join the cancer club so it was a relief not to lose my job however I do worry that it might have lost me my career.  I genuinely believe that I’m working for my last employer.  What employer would employ someone with an incurable cancer diagnosis and who needs regular time off work for treatment?   While I know they couldn’t use this as a reason not to employ me, especially as it comes under the disability discrimination act, I sincerely believe it will influence any future roles I apply for.  Sadly there’s still a lot of unconscious bias towards those living with disabilities.  I’m so pleased to share my story and help raise awareness that, with the right environment, it’s completely possible to work with an incurable cancer diagnosis.

My top tip for anyone returning to work with a metastatic cancer diagnosis:

Make sure it’s a job you love, that gives you a sense of purpose and satisfaction.  It will make the sacrifices you have to make as you find your work life balance worth it.  Don’t do it for the money or you’ll regret it.  

Kristine Chadwick was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018 and blogs, writes and speaks about living well with cancer.  Kris initially blogged about her husband, Matthew’s brain tumour and caring for him until he passed away in 2013.  Upon her own diagnosis, Kris revived her blog and renamed it Chadders Cancer Club. 

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