Working with cancer
You know the phrase ‘living with cancer’? It’s everywhere. And that’s because for some people, cancer doesn’t have immediate or visible consequences and your goal as a colleague is to help them ‘live’ and ‘work’ with cancer for a long time. As survival statistics continually increase, we will all be supporting more and more people to work long after diagnosis, or, will unfortunately experience this for ourselves.
So, what’s it like to work with incurable cancer? For me, there are days now when I feel angry, days where I feel sore and exhausted and days when I feel scared. But on most days I am just me: the fighting spirit me; the me who cancer hasn’t changed; the me who just wants to keep life normal for her children; the me who is impatient to make a contribution in her company and beyond; and the me who wants to know about what’s happening in the lives of the people I care about. I haven’t changed. I’m the same person, just one who has challenges to deal with. And I’m not ‘strong’ or ‘inspirational’- I’m just in a position where keeping going is my only option.
I’ve chosen to deal with this in my way. A way where I don’t feel that I need to tell everyone what I’m dealing with and where I keep working and being the Mum I am, for as long as I can be. My children are my priority and what they experience right now is that I’m the same Mum. I don’t want cancer to define my life or to be how others measure how well I’m doing. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t really hard. I live not knowing from one treatment to the next how my body will hold up against the disease or even the side effects. I live between three monthly scans, not knowing what these will tell me, dealing with results I don’t want to hear, going through inevitable treatment changes with new side effects to get used to and not letting myself think beyond the next scan. I don’t know if I’ll see out the things I’ve put in place at work – when people talk of ‘in 3 to 5 years’ it scares me. It’s push-pull all the time – do I work or not, do I book the holiday or not, do I let myself look to a next role or not?
I do make different choices about where I spend my time and this is where counselling has helped me to think through what work and life looks like now, knowing I will need to consider this again and again as my illness progresses. Work has to be balanced off against precious time with my family and friends and cramming a lifetime into the time I have right now with my children. And I keep the faith in my medical team who are determined to keep my life as normal as possible for as long as possible. It’s not what I would choose and it’s a difficult path full of everyday reminders. I’m still doing the same job, with some adjustments and learning to work flexibly very effectively. It’s my colleagues who help to make that happen, as well as my own energy – which cancer can’t change.
In supporting colleagues at this stage remember:
- That cancer is a challenge whether you can see it or not. When I look in the mirror I see me looking back at me, not me with cancer. And if I can’t see it then how can I expect others to? I’ve lost count of how many people I meet who comment on how well I look. They may be just being kind, but they say it regardless. The reality is that everything is different and just because something is invisible doesn’t mean that it’s not happening or at times, extremely challenging. The physical effects can be far reaching but the ‘invisibility’ can also be emotional, and a big part of this journey is about getting your head around it.
- That your colleague will be dealing with other things outside work – how children, a partner, family and friends are coping with the diagnosis – and for some, cancer spells the breakdown of relationships.
- Everyone is different and needs different things. Some focus on their journey because that helps, and others want to work as a positive distraction. There are those who want to talk about it and others who, like me, really don’t. And the approach people take will change over time, as treatments and their effects change.
- 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 though your own positive intent or your own view of what should happen. It doesn’t’ change the person they are.