How My Employer and I Handled My Cancer Diagnosis
Originally published in The Huffington Post.
On July 1st 2015, at the age of 39, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. This came after a frightening year of dealing with some pretty awful symptoms. Bowel cancer disproportionately affects the elderly, and men more than women. Given that general practitioners are told to not even consider bowel cancer in patients under the age of 40, I was repeatedly misdiagnosed. I had to push back again, and again to been seen and get tested, and finally was scheduled for a colonoscopy, which is the gold standard for finding bowel cancer. As much as most people are probably very squeamish about colonoscopies, they're no big deal at all. And I finally felt vindicated.
When the tumour was found I was immediately assigned a cancer nurse. She explained what was known, the next few steps, and was there for comfort and support. I didn't cry, not then - --I'd already felt that it was going to be cancer--but I was glad my nurse would be there for me. My treatment plan at the time was to remove the tumour and see how far the cancer had progressed.
A few years back, my mother had lymphoma, and her diagnosis came with months and months of chemo (she is now cancer free). She was able to take early retirement, but I was decades away from that option.
My company's standard sick policy allows up to one month of paid sick leave in any rolling twelve-month period. The surgery alone required two months of sick leave. The potential loss of income over six months or a year would have been catastrophic. And I couldn't even fathom looking for a new job while undergoing treatment.
I could not keep my diagnosis a secret from my employer. The next day. I told my line manager, our chief technology officer, and then the head of HR, who told me to take some time off, starting that day so that I could better process what was happening. I did. Meanwhile, the news was shared with our CEO (this was not a secret), who was happy to accommodate two months' sick leave. The policy was written to protect the company from people overusing sick leave, but there was no way they were going to be ogres about something serious. They would also try to accommodate additional sick leave if I needed it. Everyone I talked to was entirely compassionate and wanted to fight for me.
It goes without saying that we've all known somebody who has gone through cancer and seen the toll it can take.
I wrote this because it's important to get symptoms checked out as early as possible. Many cancers are curable--if they are detected early. Be your own advocate; keep pushing for answers until you have them. Men in particular are more likely to ignore symptoms and put off going to the doctor. Don't! If something isn't right, go to the doctor
If you are of working age and are seriously ill, of course keeping your job is going to be a massive concern. You can't avoid telling your employer, and you definitely shouldn't avoid going to your doctor because you're too scared to talk to your employer. There are unfortunately employers out there that will discard their employees over an illness (the infamous SportsDirect comes to mind), but most should be willing to work with you and sort out a plan of how to keep you in your position while you get treatment. Your employer should not be a barrier to diagnosis or treatment.
At the end of that July, I had my tumour removed. A few weeks into my recovery I learned the tumour was at Duke's B (the bowel cancer equivalent of stage 2). It hadn't yet spread, and I wouldn't need further treatment. I was effectively cured.
I returned to work gradually, with a late start and leave to avoid the physical crush of my London commute. My company gave me the flexibility I needed to continue doing my job at the same quality as before my diagnosis. I am incredibly grateful. It was one less thing I had to worry about. And that support was invaluable.