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Three ways to support colleagues with cancer at diagnosis, during treatment and beyond

Breast surgeon Liz O’Riordan draws on her experience of breast cancer to advise on helping fellow staff who are also service users

Breast surgeon Liz O’Riordan draws on her experience of breast cancer to advise on helping fellow staff who are also service users


Picture: Alamy

I was working as a consultant breast surgeon when I was diagnosed, aged 40, with stage 3 breast cancer. A year of cancer treatment stripped me bare, but I was determined it wouldn’t take everything from me. It was impossible to treat patients while I was having treatment, but I wanted to carry on working once my treatment had finished.

Work can provide a vital lifeline during cancer treatment, financially and emotionally. It can help you feel normal as you’re losing control of many other aspects of your life.

There are currently 900,000 people of working age in the UK who are undergoing cancer treatment, and one in eight women will get breast cancer. If you’re a nurse, there’s a high chance you’ll have a colleague facing cancer at some point during your career. If you do, here are three ways you can support them: be practical, keep talking and help them to ask for help.

Be practical

Cancer comes in many forms, and your nursing colleague could face a wide variety of challenges when they come back to work. For example, having bare arms from the elbow down is difficult for a nurse with lymphoedema because of the compression sleeve they have to wear. Or they may need regular, and often urgent, bathroom breaks to change a colostomy bag.

‘Work can provide a vital lifeline during cancer treatment, financially and emotionally...’

‘Chemo brain’, meanwhile, can affect memory, concentration and decision-making. Don’t assume they are incapable of doing their job – try to find ways to help them to do it. This may require creative thinking.

Keep talking

Communication is where so many problems at work begin for people with cancer. Of course, we’re all nosey but some people may want to keep their illness private and not talk about it all, which is hard when everyone asks them why they've been off sick. Even if others are happy to talk about what they’ve been through they are unlikely to want cancer to be the topic of every conversation.

I remember the night after my mastectomy. A stream of colleagues from all over the hospital came to see me. They sat and shared their private cancer stories and, although it was a privilege to be able to listen, to hear them talk about how hard it was on the other side, it was also sad that this was often the first time they’d been able to talk to someone at work who understood what it was like to have cancer.

Think how easy it would be to set up a support group at work for colleagues with cancer so they could find this support. I created one for doctors with cancer and it’s been a lifeline.

‘... It can help you feel normal for a short while, as you’re losing control of many other aspects of your life’

One of the hardest things emotionally is when a nurse who’s had cancer has to look a patient who has it now, especially someone with the same sort of cancer or is the same age. If there’s no one else who can look after this patient, be particularly compassionate and caring towards your colleague, and understand that they might need to have a ‘wobble’ afterwards.

In my first clinic back, with a waiting room full of patients left to see, I sat in the toilet and cried after having to tell a woman she had breast cancer. I was lucky that my team were understanding, but not everyone has that.

Help them to ask for help

There is help available for people with cancer and their employers to ensure everyone receives the information and support they need at work, but most of us don’t know it’s out there or don’t know we need it.

I hadn’t realised, for example, that patients with cancer are legally disabled, which means that their employer has to make reasonable adjustments to help them return to work. But that’s just the start.

How do you cope with work physically, mentally and emotionally?  How do you cope with colleagues and patients? How do you look after yourself when you’re looking after other people?

‘Think how easy it would be to set up a support group at work for colleagues with cancer’

I’ve recently become an ambassador for Working with Cancer, an organisation that provides coaching for people with cancer, as well as training and consultancy for their employers. Working with Cancer helped me enormously when I returned to work: to understand my rights at work, how to talk to my bosses and deal with things I hadn’t even thought about, such as people not recognising me and finding a quiet space where I could have that ‘wobble’.


Liz O’Riordan was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015, with a local recurrence in May 2018. The side effects of treatment have meant she has had to retire as a surgeon. She is an award-winning blogger, international speaker and co-author of The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer: How to Feel Empowered and Take Control.

@Liz_ORiordan

 

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