Working With Cancer: learn how to adjust your sails

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We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails – Anon. (Cancer Goddess quote)

I have a secret to share with you all. Once upon a time, long long ago (before I moved to London), I used to work in Human Resources (HR).  Occupational Health wasn't part of my remit but I was very aware of how important a role supportive managers played in facilitating a successful, happy and sustainable return to work for those who had been off for substantive periods of time due to poor health.

Fast-track to 29 May 2015 and I was one of the very fortunate attendees of a special workshop called 'Working With Cancer', organised by Shine Cancer Support and held at Maggie's HQ in SW London. I was to experience the HR issues from the other side ... the side of the cancer thriver or survivor, returning to work, and EVERY participant on this workshop was under the age of 50. The cancer-younglings.

Shine Cancer Support

"Over 100,000 people of working age are diagnosed with cancer each year and it is currently estimated that over 750,000 people or working age are living with a cancer diagnosis. This number is expected to double over the next 10 to 15 years." - (c) Working With Cancer
Shine Cancer Support, the wonderful charity that birthed this workshop together with Working With Cancer, is the only registered charity in the UK which exclusively focuses on supporting people in their 20s, 30s and 40s with cancer.  Any type of cancer.

Working With Cancer, whose founder - Barbara Wilson - led the workshop, is a Social Enterprise  (when they profit, society profits) which advises employers, employees and working carers for someone with cancer about returning to work, remaining in work or finding employment at any stage during /after cancer treatment.

So what was I doing here, a long-time self-employed person, taking part in a workshop talking about working with cancer after having finished treatment 3 years ago? Wasn't I all sorted?

Ha! To be honest, no. I wasn't all sorted. I still fight with the want to/need to/no energy to push-me/pull-you scenario on an almost-daily basis, and what I would learn on this one-day workshop would inspire me to make positive changes. 

The workshop had a full-on agenda, and was very well-attended. We sat in the gorgeous training room at Maggie's brand-sparkly-new HQ in Hammersmith, a converted church building, which was flooded with light despite it being a dull, rainy and thunderstorm-filled day.  (Thank you so much, Maggie's and all their team, for allowing Shine - and us - to use your beautiful premises for the day).

We talked about the challenges of returning to work after undergoing cancer treatment, learned more about legal issues, and thought about the important conversations we needed to have (with employers or with clients, as in my case and that of other self-employed attendees). We also discussed how to move on if - as is often the case after cancer - you no longer fit what you were doing, or decide a new role would suit you much better because you have changed so much.
Mental health experts who work with cancer survivors say it's common for people to seek out more creative, and therefore meaningful, avenues of work or leisure. It's typical to hear an investment banker say they'd like to be a poet, but much less rare to hear a poet decide to become an investment banker. For many people trying to shift to a more meaningful job or career, money becomes secondary

One of the many things I was astonished to discover during the day's content was that 
"you automatically meet the disability definition under the Equality Act 2010 from the day you’re diagnosed with HIV infection, cancer or multiple sclerosis" (c) Gov.UK
For my own personal circumstances, this also covers my return to part-time University study later this year. It matters not one iota whether you view yourself as 'disabled', it is purely a legal position which helps to facilitate your return to work or study. The law protects you and places an obligation on your employers, educational establishments or (I assume) volunteer organisations, etc. to provide 'reasonable adjustments'.
Employers have a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to workplaces and working practices to ensure that people with a disability are not at a disadvantage compared to others.
There is no fixed definition of ‘reasonable’. What is reasonable will depend on all the circumstances, including practicality, cost, and the extent to which business may be disrupted.
Any planned adjustments should be discussed with, and approved by, the employee concerned.
Just one or two little changes could be all it takes to help an employee stay in work.
(c) Macmillan 

Cancer Research offers this helpful information about 'What the Equality Act means for people with cancer' on their website:
The Equality Act considers a diagnosis of cancer as a disability. You don’t have to have symptoms or to consider yourself to be disabled by your cancer to be covered. But the Act gives you important rights.  These rights might affect your work, your education, how you use services and your housing needs.

These are our rights. No matter how long ago our diagnosis, we can make use of the protection afforded to us by the Equality Act. 

Because no matter how hard I try to pretend otherwise, I am not the same person I was before my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I am a fantastic resource, full of enthusiasm, dedication, wisdom and creative energy. Yet the idea of going back to work full-time in the City gives me the shivers; I know I would have no quality of life at the weekend. I would be exhausted by the daily commute alone! However, the idea of working part-time fills me with delight. Part-time is more than manageable. Part-time is exciting, invigorating, energising!
... coping with the physical and emotional after-effects of cancer:
Recognise what you've been through and how well you have done.
Don't be hard on yourself. (c) NHS LiveWell - Life After Cancer

Then the chiming bell of the A-Ha Moment dingalinged, joyfully loud, during the second half of the workshop. We did a little Life Map exercise, which was asking us to look at the following questions:
  • how do you want to life your life?
  • which area of your life has been most affected by cancer?
  • what's important to you?
  • what do you want to stop/start/change/continue?

Guess what I realised? I have a truly wonderful life, and I have the most perfect job. My business - wow! I just LOVE what I get to do. 

But why do I get so tired? Because I feel - no, I expect! - myself to work 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. I put myself under enormous pressure, and for what?

Do I NEED to work such long hours? No.

Do I feel HAPPY when working such long hours? No. I'm knackered.

Can I make changes to my business which will create a positive impact on the services I provide to my wonderful clientele, AND also myself? Yes.

Could I return to employment, if a super-exciting role ever arose? Yes, of course I could.

You know, I came away from the day feeling so inspired at so many levels. 

Inspired by the founder of Shine, and the founder of Working With Cancer, and all that they do.

Inspired by my fellow participants who sought information, clarity and support to better their lives.  

Inspired to look afresh at my business, to take time out to regroup and prioritise. 

inspired to make positive changes which will affect not only my business, my clientele and how I feel in myself, but rippling out to those I work with in the volunteer sector, my family, my friends and my dearest Beloved.

For each and every one of us can make positive changes, including those in our workplace. 

We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails. - Anon

So today, I would like to challenge you to choose one tiny piece of the jigsaw that is your life; spend a few moments thinking about how you can do a little bit of fine-tuning to adjust the sails and bring more ease, grace and flow to it. 

For each tiny piece of the jigsaw brings us to a whole - and being whole brings so much joy into our lives, and those that we share it with.

Macmillan resources:

Visit these wonderful people at:

Book suggestion during the Working with Cancer workshop:

News updates:

Cancer Goddess
Cancer Goddess writes about whole-self wellness, creativity and beauty for women whose lives have been touched, in some way, by Cancer. You are warmly invited to share your comments, questions and thoughts with us on each article  - and share with your friends, colleagues and loved ones

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