So I’ve written an article for my work newsletter which will go out to some 400+ people in the UK and be surfaced within EMEA and then globally. I’m hoping it will dispel that I just haven’t had my hair cut and taken an extended maternity leave. But I included a photo of me being super bald and I’m feeling vulnerable about exposing myself to my work colleagues like this. Hoping for some decent feedback and not weird looks in the corridors! Anyways here’s my article:
Returning to work after a critical illness
I’ve just come back to work as UX Studio Manager after a 19 month leave. The first 12 months I was taking normal maternity leave after having had my daughter Evie, but just as I was about to come back I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The next 7 months were a hurricane of surgeries, chemotherapy, genetic testing and radiation, but I’m thrilled to say that I’m now cancer free and getting stronger everyday. (Lots of cheering!)
I’m so happy to be back to work and to see so many familiar faces upon my return. Lots of people had been reading my blog (www.justaboob.com) and knew the trials and tribulations of my experience so I won’t go through those details here, but I wanted to write something for the newsletter in the hope of removing some of the stigma for people who return to work after a health issue, because it seems we’re happy to raise money for cancer by running or cycling or baking cakes, but we’re not so happy to talk about what it’s like to return to work having had it, or how to support our colleagues who have been through that trauma.
Be welcoming for a colleague who is returning to work
Obviously each person is different, but usually the first day coming back is always the hardest. For me my biggest hurdle was actually how I look. I lost my long blonde hair during chemotherapy and now I don’t look like how I want to; my short hair is not my choice. I worried if people would recognise me, or look at me as if I was sick. Would people who don’t know me stare? How would I feel? I kept telling myself I only have one first day back so if I could just get through it then I’d be fine. I’m happy to say it was much easier then I thought it would be! I’d say it’s so important that when someone returns after being absent that people are really welcoming. It makes things much easier for people to know they are valued, appreciated and have been missed. A simple “How are you?” goes a long way in making someone feel welcome.
Understanding how to support someone goes a long way
One of my friends early on did something incredible after my diagnosis, she asked me how could she support me the best. Did I want positive reinforcement, a cheerleader? Did I want to be left alone? Was having cancer a private journey or did I want people to know what was happening? And that really resonated with me. When people made a point to not talk about it then it made me feel hurt, as if it didn’t matter. But when people asked how I was and how I am, it makes it part of our lives, part of our experiences. People who are living with cancer or who are survivors aren’t the sum of just having had cancer and it’s helpful to acknowledge that. For many people with cancer being at work is a welcome retreat from all the cancer-chat that goes on. I do know there’s a fine line at work in respecting someone’s privacy and asking questions. I tend to think we should be more human, so I’d tell someone exactly that. I respect your privacy but I want to be supportive of you. How best can I do that? And leave it to that person to decide.
Understanding someone’s physical changes
According to the Government I’m now considered disabled, which for me is very weird because before my Cancer I was fit and healthy. Now due to my chemotherapy I have joint pain/stiffness, hip/back pain, and my finger tips and toes are numb. All of which should hopefully resolve itself in the next 6-12 months. I have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time and need to take small breaks, get up and move around. My brain is happy to engage but my body screams at me a lot to take it easy and not push myself too hard.
HR does a great job in helping people come back gradually and build up their stamina, but we can be on the look out for each other as well. Limiting the length of meetings or designing breaks in between sessions can benefit all of us, not just people coming back to work.
I want everyone to understand that it’s okay to talk about cancer and to support each other as we go through personal trauma. We spend so much of our time at work that having it be a welcoming and supportive place benefits all of us. After all, no one expects to have something as terrible as cancer happen to them, so make this the place you’d want to be if it was you and not them.
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