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The pain and joy of having cancer
I often describe the cancer journey as pain and joy going hand in hand.
I had been very ambitious and driven, travelling the world as a global risk manager, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine work medical, despite not having any symptoms. Hearing those three words, ‘You have cancer,’ firmly put the brakes on my career. My whole world turned upside down. After that everything seemed to happen very quickly, perhaps because I had private medical insurance at work. Surgery was soon followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which started within two weeks, so I really didn’t have time to absorb the news.
My employers behaved in an exemplary manner. You hear so many stories of people struggling to return to work, but I was very fortunate. I don’t subscribe to the theory that was purely because I had such a senior role in the company, they seemed to adopt that approach towards all their employees. An unexpected kindness was extended to me from the CEO, who offered me immediate reassurance that my job would always be there for me. I had just been promoted so thought I was letting him down and felt extremely guilty. In most jobs you are only entitled to six month’s sick leave, but the company paid me for fifteen months, followed by a very gentle phased return. If there were days when I couldn’t cope with the commute, I was able to work from home. I consider myself very lucky to have been working for such a good leader who really understood my situation.
Of course, it has to be said that the corporate sector are concerned about their public image and any possible workplace discrimination towards those who are unwell, but I honestly believe that when one of their personnel is experiencing traumatic adversity, they do genuinely care about them. Another of my company’s employees developed kidney failure and they arranged for all their staff to be tested to establish whether they were a match for him. After discovering a match could only be found in Asia, they paid for the donor to be flown over.
I did return to work for three years after my treatment finished but informed my employer that I wouldn’t be able to travel as much as previously. During the second year back, however, my feelings changed. I discussed it with my husband, explaining that I wasn’t sure if I felt the same passion anymore. My career no longer gave me the same adrenaline rush and job satisfaction. His opinion was that I’d been through hell and I now needed to be kind to myself. Of course we needed time to figure out all the practical things, we all have to pay our mortgages and bills!
The decision to leave was very daunting, especially as the company had been so good to me during my illness, but now I think it was the best decision I ever made. Many people presume that I must miss my career, but the only thing I truly miss is my colleagues.
A new life seemed to be possible
The timing of leaving my job was perfect in a way as the country was about to enter three months of lockdown. The first couple of weeks I quite enjoyed the isolation but then I noticed that the NHS were looking for volunteers to help the elderly.
The job involved basic tasks, such as collecting their shopping or medication and speaking to elderly people who lived alone and often didn’t see anyone for months on end, particularly during the pandemic. I found I really enjoyed the work and it helped me to develop more compassion for others.
When the pandemic ended, one of the lead programmers for cancer collaboration within the NHS contacted me asking if I would like to attend one of their steering committee meetings, feeling that I had some transferable skills from my previous financial services job. And I have sat on those committees for the past three years.
I learnt so much about the NHS, the trust, the clinicians, and nurses, that I became a patient partner voice for the East of England. We look at improving the patient’s voice, helping them to express their needs, rather than what a clinician might think they need. It’s all about having a choice for your own body and how to advocate for that. I also do some volunteer work, including being a trustee for Mission Remission, attend speaking events, and campaign to Parliament.
I am able to arrange my own work schedule now, something I didn’t have any choice in for thirty years. I might work on a project for a couple of months and then decide to take a month off. It’s taken time for me to reach this place in my life. But when my previous company got in touch to ask if I’d be willing to mentor other staff members who had been diagnosed with cancer, I felt as if I could be helpful and that it had all been worthwhile.
I’m a different person after cancer
Cancer was a cruel lesson, but perhaps one that I needed. My family tell me I’m a different person now. I practice more self-compassion and self-care and if that makes me selfish, I no longer feel guilty.
When people describe me as a cancer survivor, I tell them I’m not a survivor, I’m a thriver. My treatment may have finished eight years ago, but I don’t like people assuming I must be over it. You’re never over it, cancer is part of my DNA now. It’s taken me a long time to fully accept that the cancer may return, but if it does I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. You will never have your old life back, but there are good things that come out of the experience. I actually think cancer did me a favour in opening my eyes to a different way of life. I now look at things through a different lens and don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. As I said, the pain with the joy.
Bal's is also part of a Breast Cancer research project with CRUK in London, which looks to develop kinder treatments other than chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
She is married with one son and lives near Epping Forest. She is a keen concert fan, loves to travel and embrace different cultures and has been to 35 countries worldwide!
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