Saturday 7 October 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Back to work

"I would like people to think about the stigma of cancer in a similar way to thinking about the stigma of disability."

This week our discussion explored our experiences of dealing with our employers.

Being understood in our workplace can be a defining factor in helping us re-build our self-esteem upon returning to work, or, conversely undermine our already fragile confidence and self-esteem.

Some of us were able to carry on working during our active treatment and described the difference that sensitive colleagues and supportive managers made to us. We learned that there is no 'right' time to return to work, or to start a new job. In some ways, our experiences reflected that re-entering into work when expectations of 'moving forward' loom high (at the end of active treatment) is when we are usually at our most vulnerable. However, others described discrimination, for instance on being diagnosed with a recurrence. Whatever our circumstances, communicating our vulnerability when we want to put on a strong image that we are competent and capable is not an easy task.

As a group of women with primary and secondary breast cancer, our experiences were very varied. We heard of supportive employers as well as shocking examples of discrimination and injustice, which not all of us felt we had the emotional or practical resources to challenge. Some had felt forced to give up careers they loved, others had taken early-retirement. Many of us wanted to continue in careers that we loved but were struggling.

Not everyone was aware of the protection afforded to us by Equalities legislation, or that this would continue for the rest of our working lives.

But are we disabled?

Some of us expressed feeling ambivalent about this - having recovered from breast cancer, we were surely not disabled? Many of us felt the need to show we were stronger, just as competent and skilled as we always were and feared being underestimated or overlooked. Some of us felt that we needed the adjustments that we could request under disability procedures and this supported us to manage the demands of our jobs, particularly alongside issues like lymphodema, fatigue, pain and other side-effects.

Those working in organisations with clear procedures seemed to fare better, but not always. We learned that it helps if managers can have a conversation with us about our cancer and can separate poor performance, from support to help us to perform well.

Here are some practical suggestions:
A realistic phased return which introduces us back into the workplace.
Part-time working.
Staggered start and finish times.
Reduced workload/caseload.
The ability to rest in the day.
Support to plan and prioritise work. 
Equipment, for instance if we have lymphodema.

We need employers to understand that the impact of cancer on us changes, a flexible approach and supportive attitudes workplace.

Macmillan and Breast Cancer Care provide information on working alongside breast cancer.

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