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Returning to work after breast cancer: A career-affirming story

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Having two careers – one in sports, the other in a part-time corporate role – meant I was used to juggling and planning my time. So, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and opted for a mastectomy, I took a pragmatic approach to work: What did I need to do? Who did I need to tell?

 

My line manager was the first person I spoke to. I was clear I didn’t want a fuss. Being wrapped up in cotton wool would have made it easier to start down the dangerous road of feeling sorry for myself; the fewer people in the know, the less chance there was for that. What I needed was practical help, like getting set up for an extended period of home working – I could do my job well enough lying down with a laptop. As the day of my surgery approached, I shared the news with a few colleagues who needed to know for logistical reasons.

 

Though my network of confidantes was small, the quality of our conversations was the key to having such a positive, supportive overall experience. Being open and honest at every step of the way was essential - there was no point saying I was feeling okay if I really wasn’t having a great day. Likewise, after surgery, I was very clear about my expectations and desires around returning to work.

My occupational health contact was adamant I shouldn’t rush back or overdo it; I was equally adamant I wanted to keep my hand in - staying in the loop meant I was being mentally challenged in a way that stopped me from dwelling on the negatives of the situation. It was nice to know I could take off as long as I needed, but, after a month, I knew I needed my normality back. There were regular face-to-face chats and calls to discuss how I was doing, and that support meant I was never afraid of or overwhelmed by coming back to work.

 

Over time that openness and honesty took on a greater life force. I realised that talking about my situation was bigger than me – it was about helping others. Inspired by the depth of resources and support offered by occupational health, I worked with the team to share my story around the organisation, which in turn helped others far and wide to understand the support available to them in all sorts of situations. We also started bringing breast cancer awareness into the business, something so many have benefited from, whether through understanding little-known symptoms of the disease, or just feeling inspired by a positive story.

 

Something that happens when you survive a disease that still takes so many lives is that you become a magnet for others going through the same. The question I’m asked repeatedly is: “How do I talk about it?” My advice is to seek out a neutral party – a boss, a colleague or someone from occupational health. It’s much easier to be honest with someone who isn’t too close – I was always afraid that if I shared my true feelings with family, they’d get upset or worry about me even more.

If you’re in the privileged position of having someone at work share this news with you, be that listening ear. A very practical way you can help is to offer to attend appointments with them. I still remember that feeling of sitting in the waiting room alone, wishing I had someone with me. A trusted colleague can be that partner in crime.  

 

One of the biggest revelations of my experience was the forcefulness of my inner voice. It had always been there, egging me on through challenging times in sport and at work, but during my illness, her voice became louder and clearer - I even named her Diane! If I was having an upset day, she was the one saying “Come on, sort it out, you will get through this”. It was like having someone else going through it with me – an alter ego seeing things with a different lens.

I know a lot of people have that voice in their heads telling them they’re not good enough, that they won’t succeed; mine can also be harsh, but she challenges me in the most positive ways. I’m the kind-hearted, sympathetic one; she’s the cut and dry, black and white, say-it-how-it-is one asking: “Why are you even questioning whether or not to have a mastectomy? Do you want a fighting chance or not?”

 

‘Diane’s’ attitude has had a huge impact on my working life. I don’t get stressed any more; I refuse to. Mindset is a huge percentage of success – not just success at overcoming an illness, but in absolutely anything – running a race or going for a promotion. If you approach a day at working thinking it’s going to be rubbish, I guarantee it will be. If you go into a situation with fear and trepidation, expecting the worst, who knows what wonderful opportunities you’re missing out on.

One minute I was fit as a fiddle; the next I was going for major surgery – life can get flipped upside down at a moment’s notice and you can either get caught up in a downward spiral of negativity or you can search for that light at the end of the tunnel and walk towards it. I try to instil in my team that whatever challenges or issues we face, we can work together to overcome them.

 

There have been many more lessons along the way. I’ve learned so much about how I relate to and empathise with others, and more mindful of how I speak to people. The very fact I’m still here drives me to succeed. Whether it’s doing a charity skydive or changing jobs, I’ll give it a go. If my mind and body are still willing, why wouldn’t I? Being diagnosed with breast cancer was a turning point in my life – one that made me realise I can achieve absolutely anything I want to. I’m better at my job for bringing that kind of positivity to the workplace.

Macmillan Cancer Support’s website contains lots of information to help you return to work after your illness.

You can discover more about some of the topics raised in this piece in the everywoman content hubs for resilience, communication and in our workbook Developing your emotional intelligence.

 

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