Breast cancer and keeping your full-time job

Barrie Sidelsky
Barrie Sidelsky
Lira Smith Photography
"You have breast cancer." The first time I heard those words was in 1988, I was a young mother of 34 with three energetic boys and to say the world stopped turning at that moment is an understatement. I’m a practical and go-getter kind of person and I was damned if this thing called breast cancer was going to get the better of me. At the time, I was married and was lucky enough not to work, if you call playing mom’s taxi not working.

In those days cancer wasn’t something you spoke about. It was the BIG "C".  It was swept under the carpet and whispered about in hushed tones. I finished my treatment plan, which included surgery and cobalt radiation, and life went on. The boys flourished and followed their individual dreams. Life had its ups and downs but all in all it was going well.

Then, after 17 years of regular annual check-ups, I heard the words "You have breast cancer". Again?! I thought it had gone away because my remission period was over but the dreaded disease had returned.  

Nausea, pain, anxiety, no sleep

This time my journey would be different though. How was I going to tell my boys? Previously their father and I had kept my diagnosis from them. They didn’t even know I had had cancer before but they were older now. Also, I had now spread my wings into the media world and was 52 years old and at the peak of my career, handling the advertising and media for two of the biggest corporate accounts in the country. I was good at my job and an integral part of my company’s management team. Media is a fast moving game. How was I going to cope? I was now the only living parent and full-time breadwinner.  How was I going to pay my bond, university and school fees?

I would have to tell my bosses! Talk about a courageous conversation. I knew what the journey I was about to embark upon entailed but did they? Weeks and weeks of tests, surgery, chemo treatment, and then reconstructive surgery. This wasn’t a broken leg that would be fixed in six weeks. Recovery from surgery alone could take that long! And what about the side effects of the treatment? The HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) as my doctor explained was for me "like a truck hitting a brick wall". Nausea, joint pain, hot flushes, changes in sleep patterns. How do you work a 12 hour day with no sleep? Changes in  my mood and anxiety - You name it, it hits you. Your memory is also affected. You can’t even remember where you put your keys. I still can’t remember that, but seven years have passed so maybe its an age thing now!

Many questions

Cancer makes you question everything and you have to answer a lot of questions. This is what I have learned:

  • You will run out of sick leave when you are diagnosed with cancer. You will most likely run out of normal leave as well.
  • Your co-workers will react differently. Some will have misconceptions about cancer. Some will be afraid of talking about your cancer. Some will feel sorry for you and not know how to act around you. Some will get irritated when you are not at work as they pick up the slack for you. Some will only want to help, sometimes too much. It’s understandable. If I have this many questions imagine how many they have?
  • You will feel guilty about not pulling your weight.
  • You will feel frustrated.
  • You will be scared.
  • There will be times when you will be able to work during your treatment and there will be times when you just can’t. 

At some stage you will have to sit down with your boss and work out how your cancer journey is going to affect you both. In my case my company was great! I managed my treatment and organised that I have meetings at home. It was hard but we developed a plan that suited everyone. It’s all in the planning - the short term and the long term planning.

Here is the thing though, you recover and get back to normal eventually. But hope you don’t have the need for more leave in the foreseeable future. A little while after I had recovered I fell and broke my arm, badly. I didn’t have any leave. I was out for six weeks, potentially unpaid leave. These are the unexpected things that can happen after your treatment.  

Talking to your boss

I can’t count the number of times my cancer has caused me to sit across the desk from my employer to have  one of "those" conversations but it’s a necessary evil if you are going to remain an integral part of your company. Don’t shy away from those conversations. You have rights and a responsibility to have those conversations with your employer. Don’t skirt the issue as I had to do 7 years ago.

There is always a plan that can be made and in most cases one will have to be made but it’s a moment in time in your path to survivorship.

Today, my cancer still forces me to have those across the desk conversations with my boss but at least now it’s to twist his arm to agree to give me time off to talk about my journey and, I guess, in a strange way, his.

- (Campaigning for Cancer press release)
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