I’ve been writing about my story and my feelings on getting back to work post maternity and more importantly post chemo and a double mastectomy. It’s been reported by Macmillan that a staggering 37% of people feel discriminated against in some way when returning to work after cancer and with it being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it suddenly feels like a hot topic.
I’ve been working with the insightful Jackie Arnold from Coach for Executives, founder and creator of The Cancer Coaching Community and Author of hit book Coaching Skills for leaders in the workplace, to highlight some of the issues, with the aim of working out how things might be improved for both employee and employer.
Here’s my own story.
Treatment, tolerance and treasure, that’s what my story is about.
It’s not all Cancer thank you very much and neither should it have the glory of being so. Cancer can ‘go and do one’ and luckily for me, it now has. Or maybe that should be phrased as I’ve got the all clear, but then again that doesn’t quite cut it either, Because you see being cancer free or getting the all clear doesn’t actually make things all that clear, or allow you to feel completely free. It’s there forever, niggling, changing you, warning you, egging you on.
You have to learn to be stronger than strong, all the time and not just you either, everyone else who’s been around you for the process, because for them it’s lurking there too.
I was diagnosed on 1st April 2015. April fools day can you believe, although we were certainly not laughing.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer. The aggressive one.
I had that feeling even before we went in to get our biopsy results. Something in my gut was already telling me that it was going to be bad news and not for the first time either. I had Hodgkins Lymphoma 20 years earlier and as it now turns out it was the treatment given to me back then that was actually the cause of my breast cancer now. Great. See how it never really leaves you!?
Life until that moment was the best it had ever been. I’d given birth to our beautiful baby daughter just two months earlier and she was already turning our world upside down with joy and wonder. An absolute treasure. She instantly breast fed and we both had no problems at all. It felt wonderful and the beginning of what I had hoped would be a fantastic spring/summer enjoying maternity leave with her and enjoying the beginning of our little life together. The brand new family we’d always hoped for. (Took us a while due to my fertility being compromised again partially due to my previous chemo treatment, but we got there with the help of IVF and acupuncture and an absolute belief!)
How things changed. And with each treatment the complications, the missed new mums picnics, the sepsis, the allergic reactions, the guilt at being a tired mum, partner, friend, the double mastectomy, the implant infections, and loss of hair and change in body confidence, my mojo gradually left me and was replaced with exhaustion, a fuzz of sadness and a general mistrust.
So fast forward 10 months and life is supposed to go back to normal…right?
There’s an expectation to go back to work, you’re fine, you’ve been discharged, you’re ok. You can get on with life with a newfound zest, a gratefulness for still being alive. You’ve made it!
But you’re not quite feeling it. The phones has stopped beeping with supportive chemo texts, the friends have stopped dropping round with cake, or pre cooked bolognaise and although you know they are all still there, you’re feeling alone. There’s an eerie sort of quiet of squeaking doors and tumbleweed, an aftermath of the C word.
The pressure seems to be on to get back to normality, to the before, but to be honest you’re not quite sure how to move forward, whether you have even got the energy right now to embrace life.
And what happens when we take it back to work? Of course it’s all sympathetic smiles and sorrowful looks, met with the good old positive (thank god it’s not me) distractions, a scuffling of fuss but more or less, it’s business as usual. Maybe that seems harsh and of course not everyone’s included, but a handful of takers and it’s enough to knock you off your fragile ‘just trying to get back to some sort of normal at work routine’ guard. It’s a them and you, not a we are a team’ anymore. It’s a, hmmm I wonder how she’ll cope now sort of a glance, not a “she’s one of the best, a real lynch pin, we definitely need her on the project” anymore. And even if it’s all in your head, does it really make a difference to how you feel?
It’s your confidence you see, it’s got a slight problem. Not even a huge one, I mean you’re back at work aren’t you? But you’re different, they know it and you know it and it’s about feeling comfortable in your new skin, literally and about finding a new kind of you. It’s about seeing how that new you fit’s back into the old mould. How does it actually feel to find your old self again, only to realise that old self may not be there anymore? And the new self is different, tired, hopeful, enthusiastic, intolerant, seemingly ever so intolerant, a new one on me.
And let’s be truly honest here and know that maybe you don’t even want to fit into the past anymore. Maybe you’re still working out why you did it all in the first place and if you even want to do it all again now. I mean where’s the joy in cramming yourself on a packed tube full of sweaty armpits and bland faces, leaving your new and safe little family behind all in the pursuit of some kind of alternative affirmation of life? The supposed new and improved stronger version of you?
So what is it exactly that you’re trying to get back to? And what do you really want it to be? Is it harder because you feel your preferred reality might not be an option? Do you feel it won’t be supported, accepted or even allowed for at work? Is that what’s really holding you back? I mean how can they possibly understand what you’re feeling? Why would you even want to show your colleagues your vulnerable side after everything you’ve been through. Maybe you really can’t even face talking about it anymore. You just want to be left alone without being prodded and injected and felt sorry for.
So how on earth do these worlds come back together? How do you go from losing your hair, despite gruelling cold pack treatment to getting back to sitting, striving, positively, upright across a boardroom with complete focus on the tasks ahead, all the while giving off a certainty, a knowledge, your confidence, knowing that you can even outdo what’s being asked and expected of you? And why does it have to be from being given the all clear, to immediately back to being 100%? From zero to hero in less than 30 seconds? Why not at least 30 days as a minimum to help you re-evaluate your role, your position and your career, to discus this with what your company needs or even allow you to change your career path altogether?
Let’s say you felt supported to be allowed a ‘transitional phase’ of getting back into the work swing? An opportunity to design a plan to give you the balance you want and need? And how would that look both for you and your workplace? How can you get your company to listen your concerns and back to work scheme ideas, without seeming incapable, a burden, or for them to lose confidence in your ability? What’s already in place to allow this to be a return to work phase that’s mutually beneficial? Is there any support already on offer from them and what additional help is out there to make the process as smooth as it can be with the right goals in mind?
It’s a daunting thought, you’re already tired and intolerant and you know that approaching this the wrong way with the wrong person could seriously throw you over the edge and make you want to literally slam the towel at them.
It’s time to use that survivor mode and just go for it. We all know its f#ck cancer, so why not f#ck worrying about not being 100% ready or needing some return to work or career help? Why should you be ashamed?
For me, well I’m gradually getting there. I’m getting to know my body again and enjoying time feeling like I’m coming back to life, giving more back to my family and to myself. I’ve been lucky, my treatment is over and I can now make choices as to how my future will look, to see my beautiful daughter grow up with an amazing family and network of supportive friends all around me. I’m giving myself time working freelance and planning my future career. One that allows me a better balance, let’s me do my dream job of producing, writing, styling and vlogging (coming soon) and of course spending more time with my amazing, amazing daughter Lux. That right there is my absolute treasure!
Oh and as for my intolerance? Well I think I kinda like it. It’s a good way to help you get on with it and maybe something I always needed a little more of. A new spark to live life, I mean really live it and love what I do.
My 5 tips for getting back to work post treatment.
AND PLEASE DO LET ME KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS BOX ABOUT YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE.
I”D LOVE TO HEAR HOW IT WAS FOR YOU!
1 – What is it you want?
First decide what you want, what you really, really want. Really explore this and don’t be afraid of what you find. It might be working less, going bigger, actually making your dream job a reality, or changing your old role for one that fits your time and skills better. Whatever it is, embrace it. You’ve earned it and you’ve got this!
2 – Don’t go back too soon
Make sure you pick the right time for you and your employer. Be realistic and give yourself time to understand your limits but also make use of any new skills. Then just go for it. Once you get going you’ll realise that all your knowledge, performance and wisdom hasn’t actually deserted you after all.
3 – Be prepared
Talk through with your work before you begin and build in a return to work strategy period so that both your company, colleagues and you don’t expect everything to be exactly how it was and for everything to run like clock work from the beginning. Find out what systems your employer already has in place and how you can make that work for you both.
4 – Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There is no need to be embarrassed by what you have been through and that you are not 100% back to ‘normal’, or full strength. Give yourself a break and just be honest so everyone knows where they stand and you can remove some of the pressure.
Don’t expect too much of yourself. You have been through a major change both physically and mentally.
Find out what else is out there to help you outside of the workplace be it counselling, coaching, support groups, alternative therapies, even new courses and of course regular exercise will help enormously too.
5 – Add in you time
Set up a plan for if it all feels too much. What would you do if you had to leave work for your sick child? Make the plan for yourself too, for if you need more time out even than planned. Book regular sessions to keep you going, exercise, counselling, coaching, whatever you feel you need.
Let’s face it flexible working isn’t a new thing these days, it’s the norm, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. You could reduce your daily hours or delay your start time to allow you to build in these sessions as part of your working day.
For a copy of Jackie Arnold’s book Coaching Skills for leaders in the workplace, click HERE.
THIS IS NOT A SPONSORED POST