Helping to rebuild and reshape the working lives of those affected by cancer

Barbara Wilson

Founder & Director

Read more about Barbara

In 2003 Dr Peter Harvey wrote a seminal article for cancer patients regaining their life after treatment for cancer had finished. You can read it here. It is outstandingly good.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and when I read it that year, literally open mouthed because it was so good, I felt an overwhelming sense of admiration and respect for someone who had not had cancer (as far as I was aware) but who could distil the truth about living with cancer into such potent words and phrases. For example:

‘Whatever your prognosis, whatever your hopes, whatever your personality, the second that you know that you have cancer your life changes irrevocably.’

Dr Harvey talks about the need for recuperation, convalescence and then rehabilitation which involve:

  1. Regaining trust in your body (very often people do not feel ill when diagnosed)
  2. Regaining trust in yourself (lack of confidence, anxiety and short-term depression are classic side effects of treatment)
  3. Learning to live with uncertainty (will the cancer come back – you never know for sure)
  4. Dealing with the world, (i.e. well meaning but ‘foot in mouth’ friends, family and colleagues)
  5. Regaining control of your life – finding your own route, your own path forward

Returning to work is a critical part of this process. Handled well it can facilitate and speed an individual’s psychological recovery and arguably their physical recovery. But underlying this are a number of assumptions:

  • That an individual has given themself enough time to build their strength and that they have recuperated and convalesced
  • That there will be a gradual reintroduction process – think of it as an induction
  • That there will be a flexible, phased return to full time work, for example, starting with a morning or afternoon, then a day, then two days and so on
  • That managers and colleagues will ‘do the right thing’ in terms of providing encouragement, reassurance and support

Many organisations – do some if not all of this – they get the mechanics right as set out in our recently published Best Practice Guides. What is more they provide the mechanisms which enable these things to happen, providing a phased return, EAP counselling support and other important health benefits.

But the other critical assumption employers tend to make, a common error, is that they will be dealing with exactly the same person who went off sick some months ago, that they will soon be ‘back to normal’. As the quote at the start of this article implies, that is rarely the case. So, what else can an employer do to support an employee who is still coming to terms with their cancer.

As Dr Harvey observes:

‘Most of us have a sort of life plan, more or less worked out. For some people this is a highly detailed route identifying what we will be doing and by when. For others of us it is a rather vague amble with the odd aspiration sketched in. But once you meet a life threat, somehow the map becomes less clear, sometimes even a blank.’

The coaching work that we do at Working With Cancer enables cancer patients not only to return to work but to rebuild their lives and move forward. We help them assimilate cancer into their lives and set new goals, and in doing this we help people affected by cancer, their families, friends, managers and colleagues, to understand that cancer is like no other illness. It reshapes people.

Many years ago, a line manager shaking his head in disapproval remarked to me that after treatment, an employee was ‘not the person they used to be’. What I now wish I had said in reply is something that Michael Rosen recently said after his experience of Covid 19: that he might be ‘different but not less’.

Every two minutes someone is diagnosed with cancer and you can expect the incidence of cancer in the workplace to increase. It’s essential that you and your managers are knowledgeable, equipped, and ready to respond. Click the button below to find out more about Working with Cancer.

For employers | For people affected by cancer | For health professionals | For cancer charities and social enterprises

For employers

For people affected by cancer

For health professionals

For cancer charities and social enterprises

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