Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Maureen Kenny

I was treated for primary breast cancer in 2015/16 but was sadly diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in Spring 2019. The original breast cancer had spread to my bones and bone marrow. This means that not only is there cancer weakening my bones, my body’s ability to produce healthy blood is also affected. My most recent blood tests – I have these at least monthly – showed that my haemoglobin count is precisely two thirds of what it was before my secondary diagnosis.

In terms of prognosis, it’s no secret that 50% of women with SBC die within two to three years of their diagnosis. The figures are relatively old and they don’t differentiate between the many different types of SBC. Nonetheless, they’re pretty stark. My oncologist told me she’d be disappointed if I didn’t get five years. I wanted to know; not everyone does.

The cancer has progressed twice since my diagnosis in Spring 2019. In fact, I’m about to move on to my third line of treatment. While we’ve never really achieved stability, we have at least managed to date to stop it spreading outside my bones to organs such as my liver, lungs or brain. That is good.

I live in London with my husband of 17 years (and partner of 36!). We have two boys, aged 22 and 20, who are away at university.

Sport and exercise have always been a big part of my life and I feel very lucky that I still feel so well and have been able to keep doing the things I love. I walk, I cycle, I ski (though not this year), I run (although I’ve had to rein that in as I have painful and sensitive feet a result of the treatment I’ve been on) and I’m looking forward to getting back into playing tennis again as soon as this is allowed. I also love travelling (I was on a cycling trip in Mallorca last March when Spain introduced its first lockdown), reading, cinema, theatre, conversations with friends, good food – and just sitting on the sofa under a blanket chilling for hours on end when I’m feeling tired or just feel like a rest.

On the work front, I’m an executive editor for a large business information and events company. I manage a team of four in the UK and we’re all part of a bigger, global team – we liaise regularly with colleagues in the US, India and Japan, which is a nice aspect of the job. We essentially write for and about the pharmaceutical industry. It’s a very exciting industry to cover, especially at the moment.

I have worked at the same company for most of my adult life, in many different roles. When I finished my primary breast cancer treatment, I went from working four days a week to three. It’s a very intense three days but it’s a good balance.

Telling colleagues about my secondary diagnosis was very difficult. Everyone had been so supportive during my treatment for primary breast cancer and I knew they’d be very upset. I really struggled with deciding whom to tell. We’re all in the business of writing about drugs and they all know how serious a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer is. Obviously my line manager and HR had to know. Other than that, I decided to keep it to close colleagues.

Two years on, I still struggle with deciding how much information to share. I do tell my managers and close colleagues when I have scans and what the results are. I find openness is the best policy among those who know. Around scan time, I have more appointments than usual and therefore more half days off here and there and I know they’d just worry if I kept quiet.

With my managers, I find that communication is key. I tell them as far in advance as possible that I’m going to need time off and why. I try to be flexible and arrange appointments on my days off, but that’s often not possible. Where I can, I rearrange rather than cancel team meetings that coincide with medical appointments.

I’m lucky in that in a full two years, I haven’t had to take any sick leave. We’ll deal with that when it happens. Any absences relating to my situation have to date been for appointments, scans, treatment, etc.

When I was first diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, I gave some serious thought to whether I should stop work and focus on doing more of the non-work things I love doing. I decided against it. I love my work. I have a great team, I have very supportive colleagues & managers, it’s an exciting and dynamic working environment, and, importantly, I’m constantly learning new things. Also, given that we’ve been grounded this past year, I’m so glad I didn’t give it up.

I know it’s sadly not true for everyone but my company has been very understanding, supportive and flexible right from the start. It has made things so much easier. If you’re not in this position, I guess I would say know your rights, make sure your HR department knows what laws apply, and, depending on what stage of your illness you’re at, be clear about what you need and what you can still offer.