Saturday, 4 August 2018

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Impact on professional identity and work

Will I still be employable after I've been diagnosed with breast cancer? Will my employer still see me as someone worth investing in? How will I be seen if my organisation needs to make cuts? How should I approach my employer if I need support?

In this week's discussion, our highly personal stories illustrated the impact of our diagnosis on our professional identities and roles at work. Our diverse experiences also highlighted the widely different ways that our employers view and support us after a diagnosis of primary or secondary breast cancer.

As we know, the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis and its treatment is often underestimated - we too can underestimate the physical and emotional impact, numbing our feelings and coping by minimising the experience may serve us well until we try to resume the demands of our former lives. Suddenly, we realise we are exhausted. Yet, we feel we can't ask for help. After all, our treatment has finished and 'normal service has resumed' hasn't it?

This gap between expectation and reality creates huge pressures when we are feeling vulnerable and fearful.

A few of us maintain our continuity at work throughout, describing our careers as a refuge in the storm of cancer. Others shared how they had valiantly used up precious annual leave to recover from surgery, either from unsympathetic employers or small businesses. Others had taken an extended period of sick leave.

Erosion of self-confidence was a common response. Self-doubt creeps in to the mind of the most competent of us, and the realisation that we are not the same person we used to be adds to our anxiety. So many of us have little voices inside our heads telling us that we can’t be successful now. And yet, we do not want to be seen as less capable or less competent than our peers in workplaces which are increasingly competitive and under pressure as a result of economic and legislative demands.

A supportive line manager or supervisor can make a huge difference - someone willing to try to understand our experiences and who is willing to help us to balance our needs and our capabilities. Those of us who had received robust support, suitable adjustments and flexibility valued it enormously and felt our performance improved as a result.

Support from colleagues may also be key, and where it is lacking (some described colleagues taking a blasé attitude – 'she’s been off sick', 'she’s better now, let’s get on with it') - adds to our difficulties.

Our experiences highlighted that employers and sickness procedures often view us as idlers and shirkers. This can lead us to feel worthless and severely undermined.

Many of us take stock and consider our futures. We make tough decisions about work, including reducing hours or responsibility, changing roles or finding something completely different to do. Some of us give up work altogether, perhaps via medical retirement or redundancy. Others are determined to prove themselves as capable as they always were, and take on perhaps more than we should in order to continue to keep ahead of the game.

Despite clear legal requirements and guidelines for employers, our experiences indicate that they are not always being followed, and when challenged, the resulting stress caused can be just too much for us. Occupational health teams, designed to assist both employer and employee in coming to a suitable agreement regarding reasonable adjustments, can be helpful, or punitive. Some of us had chosen to fight for our rights, others walk away.

A common theme was managing unrealistic demands and some of us felt we had been set up to fail. We don’t always have knowledge of our rights or the energy to challenge discrimination and poor practice. We can end up being managed out of jobs by employers based on capability. We also feel uncomfortable or a nuisance for continued reduced capability or significant sick leave, and employers often show their displeasure by reducing or removing sick pay once they have delivered on their legal obligation.

Those who changed their roles, perhaps being given less work and regular cover described feeling guilty for doing less. Resentment from colleagues may follow. Others feel we have to take on more and more to ‘show them’, and we feel must hide our vulnerability.

Even those who have a satisfactory return may find that support rarely continues past the phased return period, even though the long term after effects of treatment may continue for years. We feel we must hide our issues from our managers and colleagues and battle on even when we feel unwell. We may not apply for promotions or seek career progression for fear of taking on too much.

A very few of us have found excellent bosses with whom we can be honest and admit our vulnerabilities. These bosses are rare, it seems!

For those of us with secondary breast cancer, treatment continues indefinitely. Continuing to work is an option many want, as it gives us normality and purpose, and some can and do. Some choose not to work. Others, who would like to continue working but their health doesn’t allow it, feel forced to stop.

We would like to see better educated and informed employers who are proactive in offering flexible, long-term support. We don't lose our skills or our enthusiasm and a breast cancer diagnosis need not be the end of a career; it can be the beginning of a new one, with increased skills and loyalty, perhaps including more balance and self-care, but no less rewarding for both employer and employee.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please send us a private message via

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