How I coped

    Vicki Golding survived cancer. Here she explores how she felt on
    returning to work and how social work colleagues dealt with working
    with someone with a life-threatening disease.

    Should you return to work while undergoing cancer treatment?
    Will you have the energy to work well and concentrate fully? How
    much do you tell colleagues about your condition?

    I faced these dilemmas when I was diagnosed with breast cancer
    over eight years ago, and since that time I have watched other
    workers in the same situation. My experience was that many
    colleagues just listened and quietly gave support. Others felt
    unable to face me. They needed to see me as fit and pretend that
    nothing had happened. Some unexpected words from a colleague helped
    me. I rang to cancel a meeting and started by saying: “I have some
    bad news.” Before ending the conversation the colleague told me
    that he was thrilled that I was going to be all right. “I expected
    to hear that you are terminally ill; instead you say you are going
    to be fine.” It was a wonderful response when I had become used to
    receiving commiserations.

    Jo Wright, a home care manager, was diagnosed with ovarian
    cancer three and a half years ago when she was 32 years old. She
    had a series of operations and was grateful for the tremendous
    support she received at work. Jo experienced waves of tiredness
    suddenly coming over her. “The people I worked with seemed to know
    when this was happening and sent me to my mum’s to have a sleep. [I
    worked near my parents’ house]. I used to sleep for a couple of
    hours and then go back to work.”

    Both Jo and I found it was important to discuss our needs with
    appropriate colleagues when returning to work while still
    undergoing treatment.

    Jo and I found support in different ways. I knew six women
    working for social services who had been diagnosed with breast
    cancer, and I set up the first workplace cancer support group in
    the country. The aim of the group was to provide practical help,
    support and guidance through sharing experiences. It gave members
    space and time to talk as well as support at difficult times, and
    offered women an opportunity to discuss the experience of breast
    cancer and getting back to work. The group was an acknowledgement
    that when people come to work they are managing others parts of
    their lives. As it was closely linked to occupational health,
    guidance was also available from medical experts.

    Jo felt that she would benefit from individual help and booked
    some sessions with the occupational health counsellor to explore
    the issues that were important to her. Most local authorities have
    occupational health departments and many employ counsellors. Jo
    found the idea of going back to work daunting and felt vulnerable
    when she did return.

    She was able to explore her fears and concerns with the
    counsellor. “It was a relief to have the chance to honestly say how
    I was feeling because I tended to put on different faces for
    different people. The counsellor gave me the opportunity to stop my
    thoughts racing and not give myself such a hard time.”

    If you are self-employed, as I now am, a number of questions
    might worry you. How soon can you return to work? How long will
    your clients wait for you? Will you be able to give them a high
    quality service? There are no easy answers to these questions. But
    local support networks are very important. Other professionals are
    very likely to be able and willing to support you deal with these
    issues.

    Whatever your employment status, what matters is to know your
    limits and to be clear about these with management and colleagues.
    This can be difficult but is important to remember that overdoing
    it can set you back, physically and mentally. Set simple targets.
    Check with a nurse or your GP to find out if these are
    reasonable.

    Remember also that work colleagues may feel guilty about any
    pressure they may be putting you under. Jo’s manager told her: “On
    hearing of your cancer one of my first thoughts was, had I put you
    under pressure? You worked very hard and were always ready, able
    and willing. Was the pressure too much for you?”

    I felt really good about returning to work but a flashback made
    me realise that the fear of cancer was still with me. I was at a
    training day where participants were told to close their eyes and
    imagine health and social services in 20 years’ time. I was in
    tears – I could not imagine being alive in 20 years. I felt I was
    letting myself and everyone else down in allowing these fears to
    intrude. I spoke about them openly and it never happened again.

    Jo, too, had some low moments at work. She says: “However, one
    day when I was feeling particularly down a colleague told me out of
    the blue that I was an inspiration to him by the fact that I’d
    continued working. This really perked me up.”

    Jo and I both learned to live with the aftermath of cancer and
    grew from it. However, we always realised that we were fortunate
    with the support we received in our jobs. How others make the
    choice will depend on the culture in their particular
    organisation.

    Vicki Golding is co-author with Jo Wright and Sheila
    Dainow of 441/2 Choices You Can Make if You Have Cancer, Gill and
    Macmillan, 2001.

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