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This week Louise Barrett, from Working With Cancer, talks about how she continued to work during her breast cancer treatment. Working during cancer isn’t possible for everyone, but for those for whom it is an option, Louise provides plenty of advice.
Most people who have had a cancer diagnosis can relate to the feeling of being on a rollercoaster without the excitement and fun element! The impact on emotions, sharing the news with family and friends, the upheaval to what was once a normal weekly routine and the uncertainty about the future are only part of the experience! Not to mention the side effects as you go through treatment and generally feeling ‘shit’ and a ‘sick person’!
In March 2015 I got on that cancer rollercoaster after finding a lump in my left breast. My treatment involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy over a period of 9 months. The side effects were debilitating and degrading.…losing my hair, watching my nails go black, coping with severe fatigue and generally feeling under the weather was very hard to deal with. However, as a partner in a small consultancy based in London it never occurred to me to do anything other than keep working through my treatment.
Now let’s be clear, that not all of us can do this – there are more than 200 different forms of cancer and many types of treatment for each form. We all have our own individual experience of cancer and so it is wrong to make comparisons, to judge one person vs another, because one can carry on working through treatment while another can’t or chooses not to. As it happens, I was lucky enough to be able to work during most of my treatment and that was really helpful but there are options if you can’t do this and a wide range of adjustments that can at least keep you in touch with work.
Working helped me to feel I had a sense of purpose, routine and a reason to keep going. I also had to think of the impact on my short and long term financial position …. not to mention that of my business partners. If I stopped generating and delivering business it would have quite a significant impact on my colleagues and the viability of the business.
Thanks to an amazing wig, nail polish and a touch of makeup I was able to put on a brave face to the world, and surprisingly not one of my clients noticed the changes in my appearance (or were too polite to comment!). Even my brother asked half way through my chemo when I was going to lose my hair! Joking aside it was not easy, but key to maintaining some balance in my life and working (be it part-time some weeks) was sharing what was going on with my business partners.
For many of us sharing personal details about our health with work colleagues is not easy. But without their help and understanding keeping the relationships and normality of work would have been very hard. My business partners were incredibly supportive and understanding, but at the same time open about the challenges and their own concerns. Together we put in place plans to manage my current business commitments, fitting around the rather inflexible hospital commitments. We built into the plan a contingency for all my delivery and business development, so that clients would not be compromised. Surprisingly
there was relatively little disruption to the work routine, but it was reassuring for me and them to know that we had a back-up plan. And importantly I would not feel I had failed somehow if I was not able to make a meeting.
Throughout the 12 months following my treatment I had the benefit of an independent coach. Someone with whom I could share concerns, practice conversations with work colleagues and family, and act as a valuable sounding board. My coach’s own experience of cancer meant that there was real empathy and a sense of not being alone or unusual in some of my concerns.
Cancer changes lives irrevocably, but there are many positive steps you can take to navigate the road to finding your ‘new’ normal. Although cancer can feel as if you have lost control of your life, there is in fact much you can influence, change and take the lead on, whilst still remaining in the driving seat in managing your career and life as a whole.
Six key messages
- Be kind to yourself – you are going through a very difficult experience and it is ok to feel afraid, lost, angry, resentful…to name just a few of the emotions you might feel. Be kind to yourself and find something positive to focus on each day.
- Talk to work colleagues about your cancer experience – talk to colleagues, friends and family and let them know what is going on for you. They are not mind readers. If you say nothing they will come to their own conclusions as to the support you need.
- Ask for support and make plans – don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your support network is vital and most people will be delighted to help you. Try to make joint plans around your known commitments, but be prepared to change them.
- Be prepared for setbacks – going through treatment effects everyone differently. And it is not finished once the treatment is over. Side-effects can continue for 12 – 18 months after you finish your treatment and the recovery process is rarely linear.
- Review your financial commitments and prioritise your needs – for many people one of the most worrying aspects of cancer is the impact on your personal finances and that of your family. In addition, if you work in a small business it could affect the financial well-being of the whole company. Try to sit down with loved ones and work colleagues and talk openly about the financial impacts, and prioritise expenditure if necessary.
- Don’t be afraid to think about your future – after a cancer diagnosis it can bring up many negative thoughts about your life expectancy and things you had hoped to achieve. Although in the early stages people tend to just focus on each day/week and getting through the next round of treatments. As things progress you will begin to look forward again. Don’t be afraid to make plans, even if they have to be changed or modified
Louise Barrett is an associate of Working With Cancer. She works with organisations and individuals to support them in managing work and cancer. Having originally held senior executive roles within the Pharmaceutical Industry and Financial Services, for the past 20 years she has had worked in leadership development and coaching. Working With Cancer seemed the perfect combination of her coaching work and supporting others affected by cancer to live meaningful lives. The strength, determination, resilience and dignity of those living and working with cancer is an inspiration and constant reminder of the importance of focusing on what is important in life.
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