PUBLISHED ON: 21 October 2019

Liz shares her experience of returning to work as a breast surgeon after her own diagnosis, and why she’s now an ambassador for Working with Cancer.

Liz at work

I had no idea how cancer would impact my work

As a consultant breast surgeon I spent most of my working life treating patients with breast cancer. Until I was diagnosed with cancer myself, I had no idea what a huge impact it would have on my work.

I was diagnosed when I was 40 and had nine months of treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. I didn’t even consider working during chemotherapy. There was no way I could safely look after breast cancer patients while having treatment myself.

I knew returning to work would be difficult, but I didn’t realise how hard it would be. I don’t think my employers knew either.

It took a good six months before I was ready to return to work. I was shocked at how exhausted I felt. I struggled to string a simple sentence together. Early menopausal symptoms on top of chemo brain didn’t help. How could I treat patients when I couldn’t remember the name for the TV remote?

Working with Cancer was my lifeline

It was obvious that I didn’t have the energy or the concentration to work full-time. My medical team thought I needed six months of part-time working. This was easier said than done, as the normal ‘return to work’ policy at my employer was four to six weeks part-time.

In the beginning, neither my line manager nor I were aware that a cancer diagnosis means that you are legally disabled and that your employer must make reasonable adjustments to help you return to work. This only applies if your employer knows you have had cancer.

I was thrown a lifeline by Working with Cancer, a social movement helping people affected by cancer return to work. They work with patients and employers to make things as easy and as fair as possible.

I had a couple of coaching sessions which were invaluable to make my return as smooth as possible, and I’m now an ambassador for them. We want every cancer patient to know what their legal rights are after a cancer diagnosis.
Photograph of Liz

It’s tough to explain what you're going through to your colleagues

If you are working through active treatment, it can be tough to explain to your boss what fatigue is. It’s difficult to make them realise that it’s hard enough to concentrate on anything more challenging than what to watch on TV, let alone remember what you've been told to do.

Then there’s the guilt you feel at having to arrange for colleagues to cover for you when you have scans, blood tests and appointments, or the anger at having to use up your own annual leave.

If you go back to work after treatment has finished, people don’t see the scars under your clothes or the mental and emotional changes you’re dealing with.

Not everyone is understanding. Because you look OK, you should be back to normal, right? You also have to think about how you want to tell your colleagues about your sick leave. Maybe a round-robin email to your team before you start can help stop gossip and endless questions.

Also be prepared for people not to recognise you – it happened to me!

My recurrence meant I had to retire

Going back to work was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Breaking bad news to patients meant revisiting my own diagnosis, and when operating I was all too aware of the pain the surgery might cause. Physically I was shattered after a morning clinic and needed a day off to recover before going back in again.

My cancer came back locally last year, which meant more surgery and radiotherapy. The side effects of this have permanently reduced my shoulder movement which mean I can no longer operate. I had no choice but to retire, giving up the career I have spent 20 years training to do.

Many patients have no choice but to work because they need money. I hadn’t anticipated the effect cancer would have on my finances. In the beginning, you have no idea how long you will be off sick for and if you’ll go back to work. Through the NHS I was entitled to six months’ full pay and six months’ half pay, but then it stopped.

My husband’s salary meant we could afford for me to take as much time as I needed to recover, but not everyone is that lucky. My early retirement also means that my pension is a fraction of what it should be.

Going back to work offers normality and stability

One in two of us are going to get cancer in our lifetime. You will be tired and find it harder to concentrate and having the backing of the medical team will make things easier.

Secondly, know your legal rights. You are legally disabled, and your employer may need to be reminded of that, so they don’t discriminate against you.

Work can offer a lifeline back to normality, wellbeing and stability for both primary and metastatic cancer patients. It might be something that helps you forget you have cancer for a while. Employers need to remember this and provide the support that we all need and deserve.

Visit the Working with Cancer website for more information.

Read our information pages on employment and breast cancer.

Breast cancer and employment