Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Michelle Purdy

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45 in April 2018. Within a month of my initial diagnosis, it was discovered that my cancer had already metastasised to my ribs, right hip bone and lungs. Thankfully 8 sessions of chemo later the cancer in my lungs was undetectable and the breast tumours had reduced. I feel I’m a unique case as I am the only person I know with breast cancer who has never had any surgery.

I’ve been married to Tom for 8 years. I have been a voracious reader since I was able to read a book on my own. In my spare time I enjoy walking, and during lockdown rediscovered my love of yoga which has helped me with my joint pain.

For the last 15 years I have been what is called a deaconess in a Presbyterian Church. My role is non-ordained and while I can lead worship my role mainly focuses on family and community work. I have been in my current congregation in a small town north of Belfast for the last 7 years. I enjoy meeting and helping people and at the moment coordinating foodbank takes up most of my time.

Many would describe my job as a calling or a vocation and this was one of the reasons that I wanted to return to it as soon as I could after my chemotherapy ended in November 2018. I also wanted to return to work as I wanted to feel useful. In January 2019 I started back to work part time and took a year to phase back up to full time.

When I started back to work my main challenge was fatigue and being disciplined with rest time and sticking to my set hours. However, as my energy increased, and my hours of work increased my main challenge is my monthly appointments at the cancer centre and my local health centre. Thankfully, my hours of work are flexible, and I can work round the appointments to get bloods taken and to get 3 of my 4 monthly injections. This also applies to my monthly appointment at the cancer centre, but this can take a whole day due to the waiting times to see a doctor and then to get my treatment. If I was in a job that did not allow flexitime, I would have to take a day off each month as the waiting times are unpredictable. Despite asking for afternoon appointment times, I am never given them and the explanation is that the protocol for my treatment is early appointments. The frustration is that no matter what time I seem to go to the centre I am never leaving until late afternoon which makes planning for work on that day very hard.

My line manager and the trustee board at my congregation have been very supportive (at times even overprotective but that is a good thing isn’t it?) and completely understanding regarding the flexibility needed for appointments.

I am not sure if this is a challenge, but I feel that the doctors and nurses who in many ways are great and look after me very well do not understand why I want to continue to work or understand the needs of someone who has cancer and works. There seems to be a prevailing underlying attitude that I should give up work and ‘enjoy’ life. Plus, I find being the only person I know who has metastatic cancer and is working quite isolating as I would love to be able to chat through some of the issues.

My top tips to others working with advanced or metastatic cancer is to be organised and trust yourself. When I returned to work, I was constantly being told by others to not do too much and at times I did but I also know my own limits and when I need to stop work and rest I do. In order to do this, I need to plan my week and be able to allow for down time. Thankfully, I am able to exercise and find that walking and yoga helps with my energy levels rather than deplete them.

I know that being able to work is not a measure of one’s value or worth but at the moment I am grateful that I can still contribute to society in this way.