Changing the conversation about work and cancer


I had my first trouble free mastectomy in 2015, and blithely continued my work in the field of writing, Education and Training, both in the U.K. and internationally. I was employed by the Open University as a research assistant back then, and they could not have been more supportive and the best employers I have ever worked with. At that time, my nurses urged me to spend more time cultivating interests and social life outside of work. It would be fair to say I focussed far too much on work, perhaps as I am not blessed with children or a partner but have many Godchildren and fairy God kids. I have lived and worked in many countries and friends from all over the world are part of my family, along with my amazing sister and brothers and their families.

In 2017 After visits to various different specialists about some strange round circles that appeared near my mastectomy scar they all said “I have never seen anything like this before” and “It’s bound to be nothing”. Finally, Luna, my God Dog (dog of God kids) stayed over one night and kept repeatedly returning to sniff this area with great concern. I had been aware of cancer sniffing dogs, so insisted (again) on seeing someone. A consultant dermatologist took samples from these strange circles on my scar in 2018, convinced they were nothing to worry about, but as I was so concerned…

Well, eventually I was contacted many times as I was giving a technology course in Cardiff with a group of EU teachers. This photograph, captured by a participant shows the day my phone would not stop. I knew that to try to make me attend a clinic 6 hours away would not be good news. I completed the course and threw myself into the service of others’ needs. I had never heard of metastatic breast cancer, and made sure that the skin circles were photographed and distributed to as many local health professionals as possible for education purposes, so that nobody would have to bounce from pillar to post like that again. Strangely, the cancer was a different type to the original, non-oestrogen receptive kind (we learn all the terms when we need to!). So no discernible primary of this type.

My oncology team are amazing, and I take only oestrogen blockers. Two rounds of oral chemotherapy hurt my liver too much to continue. I carried on working with international language and other state school teachers and was supported by the sports initiative run by the local football team. Despite a broken ankle and a walking boot, and having to be untruthful in order to get travel insurance, I travelled to Peru to run a short teacher course in February as the pandemic began. That was simply to pay the rent rather than prove anything, as Brexit has decimated the work opportunities for academics. But what an experience!

I’d wanted a second mastectomy in order to ‘even me up’ for fitness, posture and dress reasons. Much to my delight that went ahead in December. Much to my shock (and everyone’s as the 6-9 month CAT scans have shown me to be in remission) this revealed a small tumour. My Macmillan nurse, Michele, is SO amazing, and she and her team help enormously when I need them. Likewise the wonderful oncologist Mr S.

I was very distressed and moved by the plight of a woman with this condition who chose to go to a Swiss clinic to die alone rather than face the end of METS. I have not had the courage to ‘come out’ with my diagnosis to many, but this campaign has helped me feel brave enough for the face recognition algorithms, as keeping it a ‘dirty little secret’ and something to feel ashamed of, has not been helpful. I look and feel terrifically healthy, and now I write text books and other resources. One or two of my editors now know, and have been supportive. I never want to be a ‘victim’ or ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ as that seems totally the wrong way to frame this experience. I embrace the wounds, metaphorically, as the Greeks did. I thank them for motivating me to get fit again. My best advice is to try to enjoy everything you love, and go with your gut. Love yourself.

I enjoy walking, music, literature, poetry, yoga, playing with kids and their adults and cooking dishes to share with others.