What Happened To My Job When I Was Diagnosed With Incurable Cancer

Photographed by Flora Maclean
Last month, she wrote a piece for us about her relationship. Now, she's back to write about how she's managed to navigate the world of work over the past year.
Since her last article on dating with cancer, the writer has found out that her trial drug is having an effect and her tumours are shrinking! Thanks to the generosity of family and friends, she has been on two holidays already, and hopes to travel again before the summer is over.
In the first few weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer, I googled everything obsessively. What had I done to cause my rare cancer? What was my treatment plan going to look like? How much pain would I experience? How soon was I going to die? I tied myself in knots looking for answers to all these questions and more, and cried myself to sleep as I imagined my friends’ and family’s future without me in it.
I wasn’t just looking for answers, though – I was looking for the rulebook. I’d been abiding by an unwritten code of conduct for as long as I could remember. My life had been mapped out for me: secondary school, get all the right grades, win prizes for attendance, English, French. Take A-levels. Get into a good university, maybe seek a postgraduate qualification. Build a successful career.

A coworker I barely knew started crying when I walked in. Here I was! The cancer girl! And everything was going to be okay!

There’s never a 'good' time for cancer – despite what some well-meaning people have tried to tell me – and my diagnosis came when I was only three months into a new job. My dream job, actually: a unique position that brought together so many of my loves, and seemed to contain vast oceans of potential. Cancer wasn’t in my career plan, and I had no precedent to follow. So what did I do? I pushed on.
My first treatment involved surgery. I had never had an operation before and I was incredibly anxious about it, but I trusted my surgeon and listened to him when he reassured me that I’d be back on my feet within a fortnight. Exactly two weeks later I returned to the office. A coworker I barely knew started crying when I walked in. Here I was! The cancer girl! And everything was going to be okay!
The next week I had a follow-up consultation with my surgeon. Bad news: the pathology report showed that the cancer hadn’t been contained. We’d need to repeat the procedure as soon as possible. That afternoon I started working on a handover note, detailing all the tasks that needed to be done during my absence. This was my second time around the block now, and I felt as if I were starting to write my own rulebook. I was an achiever; I could take on a full-time illness alongside a full-time job, surely?
The second operation didn’t work. Neither did the third. Nor the fourth. I got the news that I needed a fifth operation during a business meeting with senior company lawyers. By this time, six months had passed and I couldn’t focus on my inbox without glancing back at my mobile phone, waiting for another withheld number call from the hospital. I showed up in the office each morning, and I dressed the part, but underneath the bright smile and business casual I was falling apart. I stepped outside the meeting room briefly to take the call, and later spent my lunch hour crying on a bench in the park. I felt robbed.
The following day I was summoned to a meeting with HR. I was so distraught that I barely remember what was said – but by 11am I had packed up my things and I was standing on the pavement outside the office. Where next? "Try thinking of this sick leave like a sabbatical," my manager had said. "Recover from your next operation, and then take some time for yourself. When you’re ready, your job will be here for you."
Two miserable months followed. I had lived my life to the rhythm of school bells, essay deadlines and 7am commutes. Suddenly, I didn’t have anywhere to be. My friends were all unavailable, too busy griping about their managers over reheated Tupperware lunches and staying late at their desks to push for that next promotion. I had money to spend, thanks to a generous sick leave allowance that gave me full pay, but nowhere to spend it.
I got back to work as soon as I could, but it wasn’t the same. My personal priorities had shifted, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about small-minded office politics. I’d also realized that after one year in the job, I’d failed to make a single new friend. I’d been absent so often that I hadn’t been able to connect with any of the people around me. It didn’t seem to matter where I’d come from, or how my decade of experience qualified me for the role – I was just 'cancer girl'.

I’ve never wanted my illness to define me – but I’ve realised that my career shouldn’t define me either.

The cancer spread to my lungs not too long afterwards. I required systemic treatment, administered via a drip at my local hospital once every three weeks. Faced with the choice of sitting in an office surrounded by people I didn’t know, or sitting alone at home, I still chose the former. I’d come to hate my job but I was only 30 years old. I’d worked so hard. I couldn’t leave it all behind. Then the treatment didn’t work, and suddenly my career no longer made sense. How could I make plans for our company’s next quarter when I didn’t even know if I would be alive in three months’ time?
It’s now been eight months since I last worked. I used up my sick pay entitlement a while ago, but fortunately my employer has an income protection insurance policy that provides me with a monthly stipend of 60% of my pay. Cancer charities Maggie’s and Macmillan supported me with my benefit applications, and my insurance payouts are now supplemented by Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
Although the financial aspects of serious illness had been worrying, taking long-term sick leave remained an easy decision. I’ve never wanted my illness to define me – but I’ve realized that my career shouldn’t define me either. Life without work isn’t straightforward though. I miss being around other people every day – even if those people were never my lunch buddies – and I miss the rush of pushing hard to meet an ambitious deadline. I’ve realized that work isn’t that important to me, but structure is – particularly when dealing with the uncertainty of life with incurable cancer. Alongside the routine of frequent hospital appointments, I’ve built myself a weekly agenda of yoga, gym classes and regular volunteering in my local community, while also allowing myself time to simply 'be'. Volunteering and helping others reminds me that even though I don’t have a real job at the moment, I’ve still got plenty to offer and I can achieve things. Cancer may have compromised my career, but it hasn’t stolen all my capabilities.

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