Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Sandra Morrissey

I was diagnosed with cancer in February 2018. I was told it was cancerous when my surgeon visited me on the ward after the surgery, as previously it was thought to be benign. This was confirmed at histology as basal cell adenocarcinoma of my parotid gland and graded as T4N0M0.

The treatment was 33 sessions of Intensity-modulated radiation therapy, or IMRT, is a type of cancer treatment that uses advanced computer programs to calculate and deliver radiation directly to cancer cells from different angles. I was not recommended for adjuvant therapy as my type of cancer is not responsive to chemotherapy.

There is a high recurrence rate so I have regular checkups with my surgeon. I also have MRI and CT scans to check for metastases to lungs and local spread.

I am a keen gardener and have an allotment (which I took on after my first cancer diagnosis (bowel) in 2003). I regularly attend music concerts and events, love visiting art galleries and museums both locally, nationally and when on holidays abroad.

My children have both grown up and left home now (24 and 31) so we have more time to ourselves and can we choose to do what interests us most  in our spare time.

I am an Advanced Practitioner Sonographer working in the NHS. But after my first cancer diagnosis I went to University and gained an MSc as I wanted the challenge, to prove to myself that I could get a degree and to mark the end of my cancer.

Then after my 2nd diagnosis went back to University for further teaching qualifications, again for the challenge. I now work part time as a University lecturer and part time as a Sonographer. This means I no longer work full time, as I wanted to have more time for myself and less physical demands on my body as I tire more quickly now and it will give me more opportunities and options going forward.

The challenges I face at work generally are due to not disclosing the extent of my cancer to my employer or colleagues. Initially I did not realise that my cancer was advanced and by the time I did I was back at work. So they all  think all is well and that my cancer is over now (like last time). Hence my decision to pursue a role in education as it is less physically demanding.

I have found it easier to smile and change the subject when asked about my cancer and just agree that it is better now the treatment is over and I can get on with my life! Too complicated to discuss it without sounding maudlin or over dramatic, or even worse starting to cry☹.

I have thrived on seeking new challenges and seizing any opportunities which present themselves. Making the best of the time I have and I will deal with whatever happens further down the line. Worrying won’t prevent it happening, just wastes my time and energy and leads to sleepless nights. So my advice it to get on with life, don’t waste the time you have to enjoy life. Don’t put off what you want to do, in case you don’t have enough time left.

The one thing I did differently this time is to be kind to myself, take time off sick for my treatment and recovery. I am more wary about taking on tasks/responsibilities to make others happy. More considerate of my needs and priorities. Don’t put things off into the future. I have lost friends to cancer so feel very fortunate to still be alive.

I am 58 years old and look fit and healthy. I don’t hide my cancer diagnoses but don’t dwell on them to the exclusion of all else.