Breast cancer support, work and cancer

When work doesn’t work out..


If you have read Back to work after cancer: part 1 and Back to work after cancer: part 2 by now you will have realised that returning to work was a huge struggle for me after my recurrence.   What compounded the whole issue was that I was not prepared for the overwhelming emotions and the frightening exhaustion I experienced as each month passed by and the slow and painful realisation that work was not working out. I had reduced my working hours and my role but it wasn’t enough. I was too exhausted to care for my family on my days off. I was one of those people who felt defined by my job and career and had worked all my life, only taking time out when sick or on maternity leave. When it was suggested to me by my family that perhaps I should consider not working I immediately pooh poohed the idea and quickly changed the subject refusing to even countenance the possibility.   Through my cancer support centre, after some encouragement, I went for counselling.  What convinced me was the suggestion that my choice was whether I choose to expend my limited energy reserves on dealing with strangers or on my family. That was the clarity I needed to convince myself that not working was the correct one. This was the closest I ever experienced to having mental health issues and scarily it was one year after I had returned to work and two years after my diagnosis!

Below is an account of how emotional I found the process at the time:

July 2015: I am in the process of retiring due to ill health. Not an easy decision for me to make. In fact I would say it was a very difficult decision for me. I am not yet reconciled with the idea of not working anymore. I have always worked. All my life, through young adulthood to now. Every time I have a conversation on the telephone dealing with the pensions administration department I feel very unsettled. I am asking myself “Is this It?”
I have had that conversation numerous times since diagnosis. Variations include “Is this the best that I will be?” (That was particular to the chemotherapy months as time progressed I felt more and more feeble) I try to live in the moment and practice mindfulness but there are days when I question everything. I wonder at what way my life would have been if not diagnosed with cancer. Would I have achieved all I set out to do or worse. Who knows? Would my personality be different? Would I be happy or discontented? That is my parallel universe. The truth? I will never know.
All these feelings were compounded this morning by someone ringing me looking for me to start work in a new job. As I explained my situation, the feelings surfaced yet again. It is absolutely pointless dwelling on these emotions as there are many ifs and buts in life.
I look at my children and know deep in my heart and soul that even though I am finding the process difficult, it is the right decision. I can’t let a diagnosis of cancer submerge me in self pity because then all I have striven for over the years will be for nothing. Cancer will have beaten me down which I will not allow to happen. I can control this moment and the next and the next.
This transition is painful and my future is uncertain as to whether I will ever work again, but I am still here. Still complaining . Still living my life.

If you are like me and finding the transition to work very difficult. Here are some lessons I learned that may help you find your way again.

  • On reflection I shouldn’t have changed jobs because starting a new job is stressful enough without the addition of recovering from cancer treatment. My organisation was very supportive but I felt I was “underperforming” and being a perfectionist I didn’t like that feeling.
  • Work with Occupational health. They are there to support you. They will give you advice and perhaps recommend the best way forward for you.
  • Inform your line manager that you are struggling earlier rather than later. Once I told my line manager I felt I was regaining control of the situation again.
  • Find the right support. My husband was fantastic for listening and for just being there. I also had counselling as I stated above. This provided the clarity I needed from an objective viewpoint. Friends can help too but if linked to your workplace may not have the objectivity you need.
  • Not everyone can stop working due to financial commitments, (the hard reality of life), so working with your organisation may help. In Ireland there is Partial Capacity Benefit which is a benefit that offers people on long term illness a supplement when you may need to reduce your hours. Hopefully over time you may feel better and increase your hours if you wish.
  • If like me there was no other option but to retire, check out what entitlements, if any, are available. Technically we are considered to have a disability and are covered in the the Equality Act. If you have an Occupational Pension, contact them plus study what the conditions for early retirement are. If you are working a number of years you may also be entitled to a Disability Allowance or an Invalidity pension.

The links above are to Irish sites but on Back to work after cancer: part 2 there are links for other countries that may help you find something similar.

Two years later I have reconciled myself to not working. There are days when I indulge the self-pity party and yearn for “having a job” but I realise that this is based on nostalgia and not reality. This was absolutely, irrefutably the right decision for me. My confidence in my health status has returned. I am feeling well again. My children are benefiting from me being at home, by just being there. If the unthinkable happens I know that at least my children will truly “know” me and will have good memories of me.  There is no other place in the world I would rather be as no job could ever compensate for that and yes, I am still living my life…

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