A year ago I returned to work following treatment for ovarian cancer. I was now one of the 560,000 people in the British workforce living with cancer. You might think that work would be the last thing on my mind, but when your life has been shattered by a cancer diagnosis, stability in other aspects of life becomes paramount and work can play a pivotal role in shaping your routine, your relationships and your identity.
The diagnosis was a shock; I was in my late thirties, I lived a healthy lifestyle, I had a cancer that shouldn't strike my demographic... People respond to such news in different ways, and you don't always know yourself how you will respond. I found myself heading into work to tell my line manager and a few close colleagues; talking to people was a step in helping the news to sink in. They were very supportive and I was told to take the time needed for whatever treatment would be required.
I was absent from work for the ensuing eight months whilst I underwent further tests, surgery and chemotherapy. I lived a very different kind of life during this period, one dictated largely by chemotherapy cycles rather than a work schedule. All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind during these months: was I going to be able to continue working? Did I want to? If I did, would I be able to work in the way I had before or would I be somehow debilitated? What would be the perception of me in the workplace?
I decided it was important to return to work: to do something constructive with my time, to contribute to something other than myself, to play a role - after all, my mind and my skills hadn't been affected by the illness. The ongoing contact I had had with colleagues during the months away made the step of returning to work much easier. On the advice of the Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres and of rehabilitation experts, I came back into the work routine very gradually, progressing over the course of the year from two hours, two days a week, to almost full-time, and from a project-based role back to a more operational one. This slow and steady phased return has allowed my mind and my body to acclimatise at a realistic pace and being back as I am now in a more normal capacity helps me to feel that I am moving on with my life. I am defined not just by my cancer experience but return home at the end of a day having achieved something positive.
But not everyone with cancer experiences such positive treatment from their employer. Although many non-returners act from choice, recent research emerging from a newly launched collaboration between cancer charity Maggie's and insurance provider Unum indicates that there are at least 63,000 who would opt to return to work, but who encounter obstacles in achieving this goal. So what are the obstacles?
Companies may vary in their ability to be flexible around absence and to hold a position open for an unspecified period. But I wonder whether it is more than this. I suspect that perceptions of the disease also play a role, and that some of this perception remains founded on an increasingly outmoded view of cancer. For while it remains a serious illness for which hard-hitting treatment remains imperative, it is also the case that the prospects for those with cancer continue to improve and survival rates continue to grow. In these cases it is not so much the business drivers, but a lack of knowledge or the confidence and willingness to handle a 'tricky' situation appropriately, that presents the problem.
This, surely, can be changed. My employer's handling of the situation and my colleagues' support of me were exemplary, illustrating that it can be done. And they didn't even have a track record of such situations or an established process to tap into; just the willingness to bring about a workable situation for both sides.
Changing the current perceptions is important because by 2030 the projected number of cancer patients in the workforce is likely to reach around one million, of whom it is estimated that 136,000 may well want to return to work and in doing so would contribute £3.5billion to the UK economy.
And so I salute the Maggie's/Unum collaboration, which provides guidance to employers on handling cases of cancer in the workplace so that the contribution of these people to work is not wasted. It has got me back on my feet and although there is still a lot to work through in coming to terms with the diagnosis and treatment, my experience at work has made a positive contribution to my recovery. I would recommend to anyone facing similar circumstances (on whichever side of the employment relationship) to seek advice from experts such as rehabilitation professionals, or cancer charities such as Maggie's.
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