Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Phil Richards MBE

The day my life changed forever was the 19th March 2017.  With no obvious symptoms, I started passing blood in my urine and developed chronic pain in the right side of my back on a late Saturday afternoon.  Following a quick consultation with Google I ignored the warning signs of Cancer and opted for the lesser diagnosis of kidney stones.  Unfortunately due to the unbearable pain as the day progressed I was taken to A&E for further investigation.  In the early hours of Sunday morning I received the news that was to shatter not just my life but that of my family and friends.  “Mr Richards, you have an 11cm tumour on your right Kidney” said the doctor as he conveyed the results of my CT scan.  Being diagnosed with Cancer isn’t a milestone in your life you prepare for, nor is it something I expected at 39 years of age.  I understand that life doesn’t always turn out as planned, but now I had to learn to live a new life, one that included living with an incurable illness.

I like to think of myself as a positive person and my glass has always been half full.  I have a wonderful and supportive family in my wife Annie and 2 children Bethany and Hayley. Having the support of these 3 amazing ladies in my life has certainly helped me be the best version of me.  I like to keep active too by exercising every day and cycle on average 80 miles a week.  I am a mad keen Rugby fan holding a season ticket for Wasps as well as watching International games too.  I find having things to look forward to whether it’s going out for dinner with family and friends or watching a game of Rugby is an important part of living life – That’s what makes life worth living.

My work gives me plenty of variety and I have worked for Tesco for almost 30 years.  My role within Tesco is the Lead People Partner for our Convenience business for the South of the UK, this role I have been doing for the past 5 years.  Working in retail is not only fast paced but an environment that is constantly changing in line with our customer’s needs.  Having the responsibility for 12,000 colleagues requires a lot of listening, a lot of planning and ultimately changes to make our Stores right for customers and colleagues.

Working and living with Cancer has its challenges and the biggest challenge outside of the physical health is the mental health.  In December 2018 my Kidney Cancer metastasised into my Lungs which was difficult to accept that my Cancer had spread so quickly after diagnosis.  I went through 3 stages which were 1) Uncertainty, 2) Forced acceptance, 3) Making choices.  Trying to separate coping at home and coping at work was a real challenge as I tended naturally to prioritise my family and how they were vs my thoughts about work.  What really helped was the quicker I accepted what choices I had in relation to treatment and what was the right decision for me, the easier it was to get back to normal life or as close to normal as I could possibly get.  Tesco as an employer have been an incredible support to me, offering both time and reassurance throughout my illness with an open door to discuss matters whenever I needed them.  It is important to remember that the employer doesn’t have all of the answers and how you want to be treated whilst having Cancer should be shaped by you and not them.  Having Cancer affects people in different ways and it is important to have an open dialogue and personal boundaries to ensure that the support you receive is the support you expect.  What I also learnt was that not everyone knows how to open a conversation about Cancer and depending on their experience with Cancer will shape their approach.  I was certainly met with lots of sympathy and genuine concern but at the same time I had interactions with those that offered advice and instruction on how I should live my life. With the best intentions someone always wanted to mention that relative that was given weeks to live but defied science and is still alive.  Quite often I was advised on homeopathic remedies that was better than medical science could offer, however the sooner I realised that the conversation was a genuine attempt at giving me hope, the more confident I knew that my own treatment plan was the right use of my energy.  I’ve learnt so much about myself since my diagnosis and believe it or not, the biggest lesson I have learnt is to care less about the things in work that aren’t important and more on the tasks that will give you the biggest output.  If you aren’t saying no more than you are saying yes then you aren’t making the most of your time.

Finally, having Cancer is all about making choices.  I have made the choice that I won’t be living with Cancer, Cancer will be living with me.