Stepping away from work after a cancer diagnosis
One in two. That’s a stark figure. And we all hope that we, or those we love, are not the one. It’s not that we wish it on anyone else, it’s just that we don’t want it to be us. And then it happens.
My initial diagnosis came when I was 37. I had a four and a one-year-old and clearly remember saying to the consultant ‘I can’t be ill, I have two small children’. But it doesn’t discriminate. I was devastated. Hundreds of questions flooding my brain – how could this happen to a healthy, active young mum with a great life and job? My chest constricted as the reality kept coming…. what about my children, my family, my friends, my work?
What I knew was to come was months of multiple surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy and weeks of radiotherapy – each which I knew would bring physical side effects and which would mean that I couldn’t work normally. Everyone has a different diagnosis and treatment and feels differently about their work, but for me, I loved my job and loved what I was achieving. I’d worked hard for many years to lead an agenda which I believed in, in a company I enjoyed being part of. I didn’t want to step away or to be forced to let go. It felt massively unfair.
I found it really difficult to work through the muddle of what was going on in my head – fear of my diagnosis and of the treatments I was to go through, desperation to cling onto normal life and anger that this was happening to me and my family. It was hard to look forward with any optimism. With very little history of cancer in my family I didn’t know much about it. I now know how lucky I had been. Maggie’s helped me to think about what I needed from my colleagues so I was able to articulate this very clearly. I’m a no-drama, no-nonsense type of person so was finding it hard to deal with the myriad of stories of others with cancer and all the emotions which were unintentionally denting how strong I felt.
I worked on an email and tested this at Maggie’s before sending it to a small number of people at work to share what was happening and what they could do to help. Once that was known, I felt better and so did they. I was blessed to have an understanding manager and colleague who dealt with this is the best way they could have – by asking me how I felt and what I needed. They didn’t make assumptions, they didn’t overly dramatize the situation and they re-assured me that they would be there in whatever way I needed. And they were. This took away my fear that I would be ‘forgotten’, which might sound ridiculous given what I was facing but, for me, was important. And so off I went to channel my strength and energy into the treatments which would keep me alive for my precious children.
So what have I learned about how can you help your colleagues at this stage?
- Know that while everyone has a different situation, what’s common is anger and frustration in having to step away through no fault of their own. Work often represents a ‘normality’ which becomes even more important when your whole life feels like it’s changing. Understand this and don’t take that away, even though your intent is to be helpful.
- Support your colleague in how they can step away or dial down their work in a way where they feel confident of how they will return. This builds a sense of looking forward to a life beyond cancer treatment.
- Don’t make assumptions based on how you have seen others deal with a cancer diagnosis. Have a conversation. Not a big deal, emotional and dramatic one, just a pragmatic ‘sorry to hear …. what can I do to support you?’ one. Asking what will help and really listen to what they are asking you for. Everyone is different in the type of work they do and in how they want to engage.
- Don’t go into coping mode on their behalf. While your concern comes from a place of good intention it’s perhaps not what is needed. It’s not about you – and I hope it never is. Remember that a cancer diagnosis already takes away so much control from your colleague – don’t add to that unintentionally by taking away even more control of his or her life.
And to companies wondering how best to support their people to live and work with cancer …. very practically, support your line managers through sharing stories like mine and having some guidance for them. This is much less about policies and more about conversations, so help them to be better informed about what to do or say and help them to feel supported too.