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Career Grief - and how I came to terms with it

Branwen walking on the coast

When I was diagnosed with stage 3b lung cancer at the age of forty-four years old, I was the headteacher of a large inner city primary school in a deprived area of West London. The school had a 'good with outstanding features' Ofsted rating. I loved my career and being part of a multicultural community - all of us with a common aim for the children to be safe, happy and achieve the best they could. I have so many wonderful memories from that time, but the ones I hold dearest were standing on the gate in the morning welcoming children and parents to school on the first day after a holiday, always full of smiles and chatter. 

Following treatment, I aimed to return to work in the September of 2019, until I received the unwelcome news from my oncologist - they stipulated that I would only ever be able to do my job for three days a week. Added to the fact that only 5% of people with advanced lung cancer are still alive after five years, the decision was made in May 2019 by the school’s governors that I was unfit to work and unable to fulfil my contractual requirements. 

I wasn't just forcibly retired from a job I loved, but I lost the community I was driven to serve too. Looking back, if that decision was made now I would fight against it with all my strength.

At the time, however, only a few months after an eight-hour operation to remove most of my right lung and the rigours of chemotherapy, I was unable to process, comprehend and physically manage what was happening to me.

branwens quoteThis decision was compounded by the issues with my teachers pension. I was told that, due to my prognosis, in order to receive the level of pension I am entitled to, I am not allowed to do any form of paid work (to be expected) but also not allowed to do any type of volunteer work. I have tried for the past three years to seek clarification on this particular point as it makes no sense to me and has a massive impact on my emotional well-being.

I have contacted NAHT, the Headmaster’s Union, who are unable to advise me, and last year was forced to contact a lawyer who has written to the Teachers Pension company on my behalf on numerous occasions to clarify if I can volunteer without causing an issue with my pension.

I still grieve for the loss of my job 

Due to the loss of my career, and not knowing if I can volunteer without there being a problem, I have struggled with a sense of grief. I've grieved for a role I loved and for the community I was lucky enough to serve. This was made all the harder with it being necessary for me to shield, which cut me off from people and normal life even more. 

Five years on since my cancer diagnosis, I am still living with the sense of loss for all that cancer took away from me and sometimes weep with the feeling of unfairness. However, I am able now to appreciate how lucky I am to still be alive. I am learning to navigate this new reality and to find value and enjoyment in a simpler, slower life. 

A routine really helped me to cope

My routine on the five days my wife Julie was working involved getting up at 9am, going for a walk or a bike ride, then doing household tasks and preparing dinner. After lunch I’d usually then have an afternoon nap to renew my energy levels. 

I'm determined to help others with my experienceBRANWEN'S 3 TIPS

I’ve become involved in cancer charities to use my experience of the last five years to hopefully ensure that the next generation of those affected by cancer have a simpler, more supported time than those of us diagnosed some years ago. It’s not working so far but I keep on trying! I needed a sense of purpose and the feeling that I can be part of making a difference, hopefully without it causing an issue with my pension. I needed to have a community to be part of and people to interact with who weren’t friends or family.

This has given me a sense of value and of being valuable to society, which is something that has always been important to me. It also fills my day without me having to push myself to go for a walk or organise something which can add to a feeling of pressure. I love meeting new people, learning new things and being part of something different. 

I'm gradually feeling better about life

I’m getting there. Being able to appreciate the smallest things in life has shown me that I’m actually doing ok, I love walking in the woods, listening to the birds and stroking my cat — things that five years ago I wouldn’t even have noticed.  I will forever be grateful to my wife and my therapist, both of whom have walked with me every step of the past five years. 

Branwen was diagnosed with stage 3B non-small cell lung cancer in June 2018. She enjoys adventures in her motorhome, named Buffy, and is a passionate Wales rugby fan who can be found singing loudly at most games.

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