I’m really passionate about secondary cancer patients, or anyone with chronic conditions, not being ‘written off’ in the employment market. You’d expect me to say that when my day job is to lead diversity and inclusion in an industry which is not always perceived to be accessible or inclusive. Like many others, I have cancer but I’m nowhere near done yet!
I was diagnosed with primary cancer at age 37, less than a year after I’d had my second baby. I had no risk factors and felt invincible. Sadly not. After three misdiagnoses, a long few months of treatment followed (surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy), after which I returned to work. And I lived my life, having learned that life is short and following the notion of ‘what am I waiting for?’ every day. I travelled with my kids and had the privilege of bringing them up into the fantastic young people they are today. But, at age 45, I received my secondary diagnosis following a hip injury and started to deal with the prognosis of not ever being finished treatment and having a life shortening and life limiting illness. I don’t think I’ll ever get my head around it but I’m proud that I’ve navigated 11 years of cancer treatment while bringing up two young children and working in a job I love.
A cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean life ends for many people but it does mean that in the workplace we need to stop and think about how we help our colleagues to be effective when they are moving mountains outside work. Appointments are often endless, treatment related fatigue and the myriad of side effects are very real, and the emotion of waiting for and receiving scan results is always full of fear. I’ve been fortunate to work in a company where I have been able to continue working at a senior level but with the flexibility to balance – or juggle! – on a daily basis.
But what’s made a difference has been my colleagues. They’ve learned not to dramatise my illness, knowing that I’m a very private, no drama person and that what I want is to be measured on the work I do, without the ‘despite her challenges’ added onto the end. As a colleague, learning to ask ‘what can I do to help?’ or recognising just how crap this is, is so much better than crying, telling cancer stories or making blind statements like ‘you’ll be fine’ or ‘you’ll beat this’. Everyone is different in how they deal with a diagnosis so there’s no one size fits all, so just ask what you can do to help.
And what have I learned? That what’ within my control is choosing what I do with the life I have, including making an impact in the work I love doing. And in doing so, I can help to make life normal for my family. So bring plenty of empathy but please, leave the sympathy behind.