Today I have the great honour to host another piece from my friend Jeremy, who talks about his own experiences and opinions around work and cancer.
“This is some of my reflections on cancer and work. These are personal thoughts, there are plenty of web sites which give official and legal advice. You can read my story here and I have been incredibly fortunate in having a really supportive and helpful employer. I have also been fortunate in having an employer at all — the situation with cancer is much more difficult for those out of work or self employed or where there are a handful of employees.
It can be dangerous to generalise from your own experience as each type of cancer is different and every person needs to make their own decisions. Nonetheless I hope my reflections are of use to others.
I guess the first question is when and how much to tell your employer — and whom in particular to tell. This is completely a matter of individual choice, I suggest, up to the point where you will need treatment that will impact your performance at work. Even then you can just say you are sick and get signed off by your GP, it is entirely your choice as to what to tell people. But I felt it was advisable to tell my boss — who is the logical first person to tell, but see below — when the anxiety of an unknown general “cancer” diagnosis begins to bite. My advice is that it’s an individual decision, but for me I felt it was better not to suffer in silence waiting for a final diagnosis, but to tell my line manager. So, I told my boss that I was having tests for a strange lump on my ribs in 2012 and he was incredibly supportive and helpful. As was the company since, for which I am very grateful.
The other channel of communication I have also used and you can use is Human Resources. All but the smallest companies will either have a specialist function or someone who handles that in addition to other duties. I found my HR colleagues incredibly knowledgeable, helpful and supportive. They know all the legal ins and outs and can provide very useful practical advice. The law is highly supportive of people “living with cancer” of which there are 700,000 in the U.K., many of whom are working. Many companies, my own included, have generous policies and benefits designed to help people cope with cancer. I would hope that the vast majority of decent companies would be nothing but supportive, but sadly I know from others there are some exceptions. In that hopefully very rare event, unions or law firms can be helpful to let you know what your employment rights are in this area.
The next question is often “should I keep working through cancer”? The first time in 2012/13 I did, only missing a few weeks through two operations, one major. I then went after that through six weeks of daily radiotherapy.
Although I did work part time, in retrospect I think this was a mistake, I overestimated my own powers of recuperation and underestimated the effect of the treatment. I felt incredibly tired and it was hard to concentrate. It would have been better in hindsight to have taken more time off sick. My boss was incredibly helpful and threatened to call my wife (the ultimate sanction!) should he find me in the office. Thank you, Richard!
The next time round when the cancer came back in 2015 it was obvious, with a much more serious, indeed likely terminal, diagnosis, that I would have to stop work. Chemotherapy is particularly physically draining and you are also exposed as the treatment goes on to all kinds of bugs and viruses that for a normally healthy adult pose little danger, but can be lethal for someone with reduced or non existent immune system. Even commuting to the chemotherapy at the Marsden on the train is fraught with possible dangers and you learn to regard small sneezing children especially with suspicion!
So for the last two years I have been on long term sick leave. Again, I have found my HR department very helpful in dealing with the day to day administrative questions that can arise. I was also able to transition my responsibilities hopefully seamlessly to a colleague. We all think we are indispensable but as De Gaulle famously said “The cemeteries of France are full of indispensable men”. Our company will survive without us (again, this assumes a certain size – where you are the company, or most of it, this is quite different).
I was incredibly lucky to have a very supportive employer and hugely supportive colleagues who helped get me through, but I’m also aware that for many cancer patients the workplace can be a stressful minefield.
Cancer is life changing and every case is individual but, generally, Macmillan Cancer Support seem to be a good starting point for any cancer patient having issues with their employer just at a time they could well do without any more problems to deal with.
I agree with Jeremy that cancer re-focuses priorities and ‘scanxiety’ perfectly sums up that pre-check up feeling! I wish Jeremy the very best.
It’s great you had a positive work experience Deb, but I don’t find that situation generally, which is why I wanted to post a different perspective. This subject has come up numerous times, and previously there has been a lot of negativity. I also find so many people daily, who are struggling in the work place. Of coursed I was self-employed so my own issues were completely different.
My feeling is that we still have a long way to go, but I am now being asked to do workplace talks, so that is a very positive step.
Thanks so much as always Deb! xxx
Workplace talks are an important step, you’re being kept exceptionally busy Chris! I agree that too many cancer patients have a negative experience with employers and it’s so important to bring that out into the open for them to get much needed help. And as you’ve said, self-employment is a whole other ball game. You and Jeremy have raised important issues! Take care, Deb xx