Updated: Mar 19, 2018
Alison was 51 when she was diagnosed with two types of breast cancer in 2015 and further tests showed that it had also gone into her lymph nodes. What followed was the full house of treatment over 15 months: six months of chemo, double mastectomy and lymph node
removal on one side, two months of further chemo, 15 days of radio therapy, a further four
months of chemo and follow-up surgery. Assuming that that was it for a while, she was somewhat annoyed and disturbed when the cancer returned in 2017 – or perhaps of course,
it had never actually gone away.
Six further months of a third type of chemo was planned but during this time, she created her own integrated treatment plan including diet and supplements to support the chemo. To her oncologist’s amazement only halfway through treatment, a scan showed that she was clear of disease, and she now treats cancer as a lifelong chronic condition that can be managed. Of course, who knows what may happen from here but taking back control of any aspect of one’s life feels like a good place to be.
She now coaches leaders and individuals going through professional or health changes, and consults to organisations wanting to create healthy and inclusive cultures. And she used this expertise and her expertise with cancer to answer our questions about having cancer in the workplace. Her website is: leadersinchange.net.
HBC: Young adults facing cancer may worry about how cancer will hurt them professionally. What advice do you have for those juggling career and battling their disease?
Alison: The CEO of my company wrote to me when he heard that I had been diagnosed
with cancer, and he gave me wonderful advice: “Work if you want, don’t if you
This was of course immensely practical guidance but more importantly, it gave me permission to take the time I needed, and to focus on what is far more important than work: your health and getting better. Later on, I valued the compassion behind his response because cancer and treatment for cancer affects everyone very differently. Just because someone with the same type of treatment for the same type of cancer is coping superbly and is continuing to work, you do not have to do the same.
Eliminate the word “should" from your vocabulary immediately! If you feel like curling up into a little ball, that’s is 100 percent OK and you can feel 100 percent fine about that. I will also add that it feels empowering and helpful to carve out your own way through treatment – you are not every patient, you are you.
Now that you feel free to work as much as you want to, create your plan. Working isn’t a binary on/off switch. To keep "in the game" at work and continue to feel connected, you might want to work flextime or on certain days of the week or during certain parts of your treatment. Chemotherapy for example, typically goes in cycles, and you’ll get to know your good and not-so- good days. Whilst I’m not a fan of looking online to answer random cancer questions (there’s a lot of unhelpful and distressing information out there), well established cancer charities have reliable information about treatment side effects which may give you some clues about what work might be possible. Alternatively, if you’re part of a supportive forum for your cancer, it might be worth posting a specific question to tap into others’ experience of the treatment you’re having. But nothing beats actually beginning to go through treatment to tell you what’s actually possible and appropriate for you.
If you don’t want to, or can’t cope with working (and remember: that’s 100 percent OK) then this might be the moment when you begin to think about doing something quite different with your career. During treatment, as and when you have the energy and the inclination, you might want to use the opportunity to reflect on what you truly love doing. And perhaps begin some gentle research to explore more. And don’t forget that your friends are a valuable resource during this time to brainstorm ideas or get their input. It might even be a useful conversation topic if friends feel awkward talking about the cancer itself. Believe me, it happens. Whatever you decide, know that it will all work out in the end. Really.
HBC: How should they tell their employer they are facing cancer?
Alison: Telling your employer about your cancer is a tricky one, and there is no hard and
fast rule. What you want to do will depend largely on the relationship you have with your boss and to a degree, the company’s sickness and absence policy (which in turn is based on the local employment law). On this latter point, it’s worth getting someone to help you make sense of the company sickness and absence policy so you know where you stand. And don’t forget to check on cancer specifically as the law in some jurisdictions puts employees into "protected status."
You need to be emotionally ready to tell your employer. This may mean waiting until you know more about the your cancer and how the treatment plan will affect your work. The early days after diagnosis are an emotional rollercoaster and they’re so full of unanswered questions, tests and more tests that you may not have the story ready; you may not know precisely what to say because you don’t yet know yourself how treatment is going to affect your life. So take your time if you need it.
If you have a good relationship with your boss or it’s difficult to get time off to attend appointments, you may want to tell her or him earlier. Having support and understanding from the boss or a close and trusted colleague, may be a useful resource during the working day if you need support.
As soon as you know your treatment plan, it’s time to tell work more formally. Think through carefully what you want from work: what you will do and what you would like the company to do. How work might be reallocated for a period of time? What work can you do from home? What hours do you think you’ll be able to keep? How can people keep in touch with you? And importantly, what do you want colleagues and co-workers to be told about your cancer and the treatment? Remember always to go with solutions and proposals to show that you have a handle on this – even if you don’t!
You might also want to arrange a periodic check-in with the boss so you both have the option to change how the plan you propose and agree is actually working in practice. This will give you both an opportunity to adjust, and may help the boss feel more confident that the work will get done and that you will cope.
The ability for you both to have robust conversations about what’s feasible is important, and don’t forget that a lot of people are nervous and embarrassed and just don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. Make it easy for them.
HBC: How has having cancer influenced your career? What advice do you have from your own journey?
Alison: Before my diagnosis, I held a senior global role in a large organisation which involved long hours and international travel. I loved what I did. I chose to step away from work completely to focus on my health and although friends said that I would never be able to do it, I found it easy. I also knew that I needed to detox from a very hectic lifestyle (also a single parent of an 8-year-old) and take time out from a competitive organisational culture. I never regretted that decision and increasingly saw that I needed to make a longer term change to how I lived,
and the work that I did. I had been thinking about leaving for a while but hadn’t dared think beyond a "big company" lifestyle.
While you’re in treatment, it’s easy to get caught up in the horridness of the situation but I also found it nurturing to dream about what I might do "the other side" of treatment. I framed those 15 months as a gift of extended thinking time to brainstorm and plan. It’s not all been plain sailing since then but I know I’m on the right path and I’m excited about what’s to come.