Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Maggie Williams

My diagnosis story will be familiar – I found a lump, went to the doctor, had biopsies and was initially diagnosed with primary breast cancer. A month later that diagnosis changed to secondary breast cancer when a CT scan showed it had spread to my lung. That was November 2020, and since then, I’ve been taking drugs (Palbociclib and letrozole) to contain and control the cancer.  I’ve just had my first CT scan since my diagnosis, and was very pleased to hear that my treatment has been keeping both the tumour and the spread under control. I go to Guy’s Cancer Centre in London and the team there has been fantastic.  

My husband and my 15-year-old son have been a wonderful support before, during and since my diagnosis. There’s never an easy time to find out about secondary breast cancer – but less than a month before Christmas, during lockdown definitely wouldn’t have been my choice in terms of sharing the news with family and friends.

My big passion outside work is music – I play bass guitar and keyboards and until lockdown struck was very busy with gigs and recording, in addition to my day job. As no-one’s been able to do any live music for over a year, I’ve been able to put it to one side in terms of the effect of my cancer on being able to play regularly, but I’m now going to have to give it some serious thought.  It’s great fun, but very tiring!

I’m a business writer, so I do a combination of ghost writing for businesses, research, journalism – anything that involves words, in fact.  Most of what I write is based in the world of work, so HR issues, pensions, employee benefits and more…

I’m fortunate that the work I do is always based at home and, within reason, I can be in control of my own hours.  So, my diagnosis hasn’t really required much change in my working life so far.

Some of the challenges have come from being in lockdown. It’s really hard to tell friends in the middle of the street that you have cancer, so finding the right moment and medium to talk has been difficult when it isn’t possible to sit down inside over a   quiet cuppa.

Being self-employed, I’ve also had to think carefully about who among my clients I tell, and when.

The clients that I’ve shared my diagnosis with have been incredibly supportive – these are people and companies that I’ve worked with regularly for a long time and have a great ongoing relationship with. They have kindly taken the time to ‘check in’ regularly with me and make sure that I’m doing OK.  

I’m very aware that sometimes people (friends, family and colleagues) just simply don’t know what to say and it might be the first time they’ve encountered anyone with cancer.  I’d love to see more help for people in the workplace and everyday life to help have ‘cancer conversations’ – both around diagnosis and if things change further down the line.

It’s not all that long since I was diagnosed, so I’m still learning. Because metastatic cancer is a ‘forever’ condition, I’ve had to reconfigure the way that I think about some things, with more focus on the day-to-day/short term over long term plans. But I still have future ideas and goals!  

I’m very fortunate in that I feel incredibly well most days at the moment and can carry on with ‘business as usual’. But I’m also aware that I need to make sure I’ve got safeguards in place for myself and my business if that doesn’t continue to be the case.  Some years ago, a friend with multiple sclerosis told me ‘you’ve always got to stay one step ahead of it’ about her illness – and although it was a different condition, I’ve kept that advice in mind.