Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Being away from work

Inclusion takes many forms – it’s about feeling that you are needed, part of something and the conditions are right to make a good contribution. Cancer can often stop you feeling that you are part of anything ‘normal’.

My life went from leading an agenda at work which energised me, I felt passionate about and was a major part of my life. My days were full of presentations, conversations, working with people I enjoyed spending time with, as well as dealing with plenty of challenges! Then suddenly they were full of recovery from surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and all that comes with them – hair falling out in my soup, having no energy to play with my children, shopping for a wig which would fly repeatedly off in the wind, counting out tablets every day, taking my temperature 3 times a day, trying to find a vein to take yet more bloods … and appointment after appointment. And all the time wondering how did it come to this, at my age, and when I was doing everything ‘right’?

At work

From a work perspective, I struggled to know that all the work I had done which was coming to fruition was now being led by someone else. It didn’t matter that the someone else was a talented colleague and that they were put into the post temporarily. It just wasn’t me. I missed the routine of getting up and out of the door … yes, the same one I had found stressful with two small children. Cancer at least brings a better perspective. And I missed the company. The conversations about life, normal everyday life. A big day out energy wise became coffee and a cake at the local garden centre. Talking about how I felt – how I really felt and not putting a brave face on things – kept my perspective on where my focus needed to be, but also helped me to understand that I felt this way about work because it was important to me.

In that time, two things really helped me. It wasn’t big gestures of gift boxes and flowers. It was small things which helped me to know I was important to my colleagues and was being thought about. The first was from my team mates who made the time to visit every few weeks, bringing with them my favourite scone from the work canteen and a good book. The second was from the leader of my company who I worked with regularly. In all the work which he had to do, he found time to contact me every few weeks to ask me to consider some specific questions which were on his mind about the future of the work we were doing. And that he wanted to have a coffee to discuss them with me whenever I felt ready. I had meaningful work which I could then do whenever I felt I had some energy, and I had already shaped ideas when I returned. My colleagues read me well. But that’s me, not everyone.

So what have I learned about how you can support colleagues at this stage?

The first thing is that everyone is different and some people are able to work through their treatment while other jobs just can’t be done at the same time as treatment. Time away may be what’s needed. It just needs a conversation about how that individual can be kept in touch or supported to keep working while balancing with appointments and side effects. Don’t jump to the assumption that they don’t want to work before you know what’s needed. But equally don’t judge when they can’t as they may not be able to, either emotionally or physically.

If the person does have to take time off, as I did, then out of sight can’t feel like out of mind. In busy schedules, make time to contact them. A text means a lot and isn’t intrusive when your colleague might be asleep, for example.

Small things matter. While bunches of flowers might feel the right thing to do, I found myself wishing more for a text to check in or a short visit rather than material things which, by the way, can feel very inconsequential for a cancer patient.

If it’s right for them, agree a ‘pick up and put down’ piece of work to do. Something important but with no pending deadline so there is no pressure attached. It kept my brain ticking over – and distracted me with some normality. It’s an extreme way to get some ‘thinking’ time but it worked!