We had another family function yesterday which was lovely, the weather was glorious and it is always nice for families to come together and celebrate occasions with good food and a sense of togetherness. It was my goddaughter’s Confirmation and as we gathered around the church yard after the ceremony meeting people, admiring the style and basking in the sunshine, I happened to meet someone whom I worked with in the past. It was great to catch up with her and exchange pleasantries. She hadn’t heard that I had stopped working and seemed surprised at my decision. She jokingly added an aside that maybe I might return to them at some stage. I laughed it off at the time but later I grew pensive and began to reflect on the past few years in relation to work and the impact that my second episode of cancer had on me. Below is something I wrote in my journal in 2014 soon after I returned to work:
Does a cancer diagnosis automatically make one unemployable? I hear protests of denial from every section of society. Of course we can make a valid contribution to society I hear you say. I may have concurred with that up to my second diagnosis of cancer. People don’t know how to react to you. They are afraid of saying/ doing the wrong thing. Sometimes I feel people are walking on eggshells around me. I am still the same person. I still have ideas. I can contribute.
Sounds a bit dramatic doesn’t it? However reflecting back, my appearance had changed considerably and some people did not recognise me as I looked so different and possibly still ill looking around that time.
Many people have different views of working through cancer treatment. The general consensus seems to be that each situation is unique, some people decide to continue working due to financial reasons, are self-employed or simply because they enjoy their job and it becomes a welcome distraction. Most employers are sympathetic towards their employees and will facilitate them as much as possible with shorter hours or days off for treatment. My job wasn’t conducive to working through treatment and I had to take time off for each treatment regime, approximately a year for each episode, and reflecting on my last episode I probably should have taken more than a year off.
After my initial episode of cancer, on my return to work, my employers at the time facilitated me with shorter hours . I slowly recovered, went to college, (obtained a first!), and got promoted soon after. After a year or so I was able to return to full time work again, and all was good in life again. Second time around was a bit different. I knew I needed to work shorter hours as I was still not feeling great. I also wanted to reduce my role so my employers at the time facilitated me by giving me shorter hours and a reduced role, I worked two days a week with a plan to increase after a few months. However it became clear to me as time progressed that I was not going to be able to increase my hours so I decided that the best thing to do was apply for a job elsewhere.
The following paragraph depicts how changing jobs had a impact on me.
2015. The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions. I changed job at the beginning of January with very little enthusiasm. The fundamental reason I left my old job was that I needed to work shorter hours and also to provide for them in the future if anything ever happened to me as I would rejoin a pension scheme. Whilst thinking of the bigger picture I didn’t consider what the job would be like and its impact on me. Within a week I knew I had made a mistake. The job was too physical and I struggled immensely with it, so much so I became extremely stressed and anxious. Not a good state to be in when trying to live a healthy life. Everything became clouded with this overwhelming sense of dread and I couldn’t enjoy the simple things in life.
The lack of control I felt reminded me of when I was initially diagnosed. My equilibrium was unbalanced and the world felt skewed. It was very difficult to think straight and at times didn’t understand why I was reacting so powerfully to this new change in my life. Together with my husband and GP, I realised that I had undergone enormous stress over the past two years and this new stressor was just too much for me. The acknowledgment of that alone helped me to understand and regain control. All along I had been dealing with each new procedure and treatment with stoicism and looking forward to putting everything behind me. (My coping mechanism is a form of denial, moving on and trying not to look back. Apparently research suggests that this type of coping, in addition to positivity, can have good long term health outcomes for people! )
Slowly I began to regain control. I decided that I could either get a different job or else give up work completely. I spoke to my line manager and occupational health about the physical difficulties and felt better for verbalising it. I am booked in for counselling through my cancer support centre. These small measures enabled me to become myself again.
It is nearly two years since I wrote that piece above. I read it from time to time to remind myself of how vulnerable, raw and exposed I felt at the time. Whatever the future has in store for me, I certainly do not want to experience the above again. This is a personal account of what happened to me, it does not mean that this is the case for everyone. Thankfully all is well again and it is good to be able to reflect on that period feeling positive once more. If you are on the cusp of returning to work after treatment or considering changing job it is worth noting and preparing yourself emotionally as well as physically.
The subject of work and cancer requires more than one post so next time I plan to write about preparing a return to work and later what happens if work doesn’t work out (excuse the pun)!
Check out Back to work after cancer: part 2 on preparing for returning to work.