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Thanks to those of you who managed to make it along last Wednesday to the web chat we hosted with Bengu Shail.
Bengu spent an hour answering your questions on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis and also answered some questions which we received via email following the live chat.
For those of you who were unable to make it on Wednesday, I've created a transcript which you can read below. You may also find the following link useful:
Our next web chat is in the New Year and will be with a very special guest, so stay tuned!
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I’ve been writing on CV’s that I have had cancer to explain the gap in my employment. Should I do this? Or leave it out?My view is 'why should I hide it?' People either accept you as someone who's had cancer or they don't. If you have problems down the line then they'll need to know about it anyway, so why hide it in the first place? Perhaps though, leave that information for the interview? I've asked myself the same question! My view is that if they don't want to employ me because I've had cancer then I probably don't want to work for them. It's illegal to discriminate based on health records. My view is that, if you've provided evidence that you're fit for the job and your Dr can back that up then there should be no reason why you shouldn't be employable. It's important to reiterate this in interview - keep telling them that you *are* fit for the jobI understand that the disability discrimination act covers you from the point of diagnosis, but I had to give up a course of study 3 weeks before diagnosis (after 3 months of missed diagnosis) do I have any recourse?I'd love to be able to help you on this, but I'm not an expert in employment law. I recommend you call the 0808 808 0000 number to speak to a specialist at Macmillan who will be able to advise if you have any recourse.So if they ask 'how are you' I should reply the usual 'fine thanks' before the interview?Are you ready to go back to work? Either way you need the support of your Dr.Either to say that you're fit to work, or you're not fit enough. I had the benefits worry myself; fortunately I was supported by my Dr.I am at the stage that I want to start to get into work again - a new job - as I have to start again - I am currently on ESA - but am severely compromised as to confidence and energy levels etc Are there any other agencies that can support me in returning to work so I can do things at my own pace?It's a difficult question, would it be an option to look for something short-term to bridge the gap and keep applying for others? I'm in a different situation since I was working 60-70 hour weeks and I know I can't go back to that. Are there elements of your old job that you can pick up and do part time? Or perhaps side-step and work for a different line manager since your old one wasn't very supportive?Often volunteering allows you the opportunity to get your confidence back and develop new skills. You can then apply for jobs within the organisation you're volunteering in. If you're on disability benefits, then my understanding is that even if you're volunteering you're still entitled to those - so do check that before flagging yourself up at the job centreWhen at work, do I need to tell to other colleagues? They will have to provide cover for me when I'm at hospital appointments etc. My problem is that some people are 'skeptical' about my appointmentsI think that if you have appointments then it's only fair to give as much notice as possible. Obviously you don't have to tell anyone the details, that's your business and it's different for everyone. You may find in the long-term that it's easier to explain to the people who need to know that you will be attending appointments for cancer treatment, just so they know where you are and they can plan their workloads.Is it better to let your colleagues know you have cancer to save awkward questions when you go back?
Everyone is different. Some people are very private and don’t want to draw attention or talk about it. Personally, I’d rather people got the facts from me direct (not from gossiping). It gets their questions out of the way, rather than having to watch them dancing around the houses being awkward, avoiding contact and thus, making me feel awkward (and paranoid). I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. Do what you feels right for you. Don’t let anyone make you feel pressured to deal with it in a way you aren’t comfortable. If you don’t want to involve people, don’t. After what you’ve been through, it’s totally your prerogative isn’t it?I work in a big company with a "performance culture" where employees are measured yearly and compared against peers. I have short term memory problems and the nature of my business is always learning new deeply technical things. Consequently 2 years after treatment I'm still significantly underperforming. They are not measuring me at the moment because of my treatment, but at some time I expect I'll be back in the pool with all the rest. The thing I've been trying to get my head round is whether it constitutes "reasonable adjustments" to expect them to measure me against my juniors into the future, rather than against those who were my peers before all this happened.How are you managing the short-term memory loss at the moment? Perhaps finding some coping mechanisms and ways to manage the problems will help. Myself, I'm dyslexic and I tend to be meticulous about writing post-its, keeping my diary up to date, writing to-do lists etc as this helps me manage the issue.Yes I have some coping strategies, e.g. dictaphone etc. The thing I haven't managed to do is find a way of keeping track of learning something new and complex. I can do it, but I'm so much slower than I used to be because my brain is such a leaky bucket.Always speak to your manager to find out what the policy is. And I'd definitely recommend sitting down and getting some advice externally. A union for example, could help or Citizen's Advice may be able to advise. Obviously it's going to take you a while to get back to pre-diagnosis state, but it's a work in progress. I can only recommend speaking to your manager and explaining the problems you're having, the measures you're taking to help and agree a plan to move forward that you're both comfortable withIs it easy to return to work after cancer, as lots of people seem to think that once your in remission, you are just the same as you are before you had treatment?For me to return to what I was doing before would have been impossible because my body simply can't do the things it used to do. I've had a lot of damage to my bones from steroid use and I also experience a lot of fatigue. I've had to be really honest with myself about what I can and can't do. Also, when you have cancer it really knocks your confidence, especially when you're isolated from your normal working environment.For me, volunteering in the short term was the best option. It gives me the opportunity to test my body and see what I can and can't do in a supportive environment that understands, so it gives you a chance to develop your confidence and gain skills and bring you back into a normal working environment.Bengu are you working now? What type of work are you finding helps you best?I'm volunteering now as I still have a year of treatment left. It's a great opportunity to ensure that I’m still out there and my brain is working and I'm using my skills. At the minute I'm volunteering in Macmillan's communication team and am helping to make a video which campaigns for 24 hour nursing for cancer patients at the end of their life. As I used to work in TV this project is really up my street and it gives me the opportunity to also use my experience as a cancer patient to really make sure that Macmillan are addressing the right issues. And I'm loving it!Ultimately my plan is to apply for a job either here at Macmillan or at another cancer charity and change my career altogether. At the moment my body cannot cope with a full time job and I need to be practical about what I can and can't do
I feel unsure where to start - and feeling so vulnerable - and uncertain of my own capabilities, what do you advise?When you go back to work you have to be really clear about what you want, because once you've had cancer you realise that life's too short to waste on something that doesn't make you feel good.How has your cancer diagnosis changed your working life and have your priories changed?I think before I got ill it was all about my career and to be honest I worked myself into the ground. Because in my industry (television) to be seen as somebody with problems was a cardinal sin so basically I ignored all my health problems and almost ended up killing myself for my job. When I got cancer it made me sit up and have a really hard look at myself and my life and what my priorities were, and basically I had a choice; I either choose to have an exciting career which works me into the ground, or I can choose to have a life. And I chose life.Like you, I want something to do with a cancer charity, as being a member here for a year has opened my eyes lots, as well as going through cancer myself. I like helping people. How did you know what you wanted to do, and how did you get into it?Have you thought about retraining? Now is probably the only time you'll have the time to do that? There are lots of things you can do here at Macmillan. Have a look into volunteering; we've got volunteers in anything from fundraising to human resources to supporter services. You could even help in a local help centre if there's one nearby? It might be a good way to dip your toe in and see if it's something you really want to do without formally committing to a training course or anything like that.Have a look here http://www.macmillan.org.uk/GetInvolved/Volunteer/Volunteering.aspx or you could also consider becoming a cancer voice.What do cancer voices do?Cancer voices get involved in campaigns and help us shape our services, future cancer policy and get involved in press campaignsDo you think your employer understood how to deal with you cancer diagnosis? I was a freelancer and three days into my new job when I was diagnosed so my contract terminated as soon as I was admitted into hospital. My employers were obviously very concerned and sympathetic when I told them and sent me a lovely get well card while I was in hospital. To be fair, they only knew me for three days. That’s all I got and I didn’t expect anything else. Could your employer could have helped you more?Yes, I do think some my previous employers could have been a little more helpful in terms of giving me a job with fewer and more flexible hours. As freelancer, I was in a difficult place to begin with because nobody was obliged or legally contracted to ‘care’. I was on my own and wasn’t prepared to compromise on my health to go back to working as I did before. I did explore options to side step into another role but I couldn’t justify taking such a huge move into a job that was essentially futile in terms of job satisfaction. My theory was, if I was going to come out of program making to do something unrelated, I should put my skills into something more worthwhile and meaningful. What has been your biggest challenge in returning to work?The biggest challenge for me was to accept that the career I’d spent my whole life working towards was no longer the best place for me. In terms of my new career, the challenge was accepting that no matter how much I push myself, I’m not quite ready to commit to going back to work. My body isn’t fit enough to do a daily commute or long days in the office so I volunteer to make sure I can physically manage working. Essentially, I had to accept that I’m a now round peg, so I need to take my time and find a role hole instead of trying to be something else. It’s a terrifying prospect, especially when you had your whole life mapped out. Has your attitude changed since your cancer diagnosis?Yes. Having cancer gives you the chance to take a long hard look at yourself and sometimes, you don’t like what you see. What I saw was someone who sacrificed her whole life for her career and spent a long time trying to please other people at the risk of her own life. Now, I put my health and my family first. I don’t put as much pressure on myself to be this amazing successful career woman because I know the people who love me judge me for who I am not what I am. I don’t do anything that makes me unhappy or compromised. Life is too short to be miserable.When you returned to work, I’m sure you must have been pretty apprehensive but what fears did you have that turned out to be unfounded?Having met a lot of the team in the capacity of a Macmillan Cancer Voice, I knew the team were lovely and I had nothing to worry about. I think my only worry was walking around with a wig on, knowing people knew it was a wig and that I’d be judged for it. I was wrong. Nobody judged me at all. I stopped wearing my wigs and feeling like I needed to hide. As for the lack of hair, nobody ever blinks an eyelid!If you go back in time before you were diagnosed and give yourself one piece of advice on how to deal with your cancer, what would it be?In hindsight, I wouldn’t be as hard on myself to be ‘brave’ all the time. I spent a long time suppressing my own feelings because I couldn’t bear to see my family upset. These days, I’m a lot more open about what’s on my mind and if I want to have a rant, I do and then I do something positive to snap out of it. Where do you see the Facebook group going? Eventually, I’d like to see my group expand so I can reach my 5000 target. I’m a great believer in people power and I think amazing things can be achieved if only we all took a bit of responsibility and started doing more. One day, I’d like to find out that someone who joined my group and signed up because of my blogs were identified as match and that their bone marrow saved a life. If I can save just one life by using my experience to talk about this horrible disease, then to me, whatever I’ve been through this year had some sort of reason.What’s your favourite part of your new working life? I like working with people who have integrity and are as passionate as am about what they do. There are no egos where I work now and it’s really nice to work with other brilliant creative minds who are as just as completely focused on helping people, but don’t make you feel under pressure to work over and above the required hours to achieve your objectives. Do you have new career ambitions and goals? What are they?One day, I hope to find a full time job in a cancer charity in a role which allows me to use both my TV skills and my experience as a cancer patient/survivor to make a real difference to cancer services in the UK. How was your first day?My first day was amazing. I couldn’t have wished for a nicer bunch of people to work with. My boss (the Head of Communications) gave me some work, assigned me a manager and let me get stuck in with a really interesting project. I came home and I felt like I really used my skills for something that will make a difference. It was a great feeling. Did you get back to work because you wanted to go back, or because you needed the money? I thought I would have to go back to work sooner that I was ready to and was really worried that when my benefits were next assessed, I wouldn’t qualify. I explained my worries about my specific physical limitations to my doctor and I that would find it difficult for a variety of reasons (mobility, fatigue etc). My Macmillan adviser helped me with my application, my doctor supported my re assessment to the DWP and ESA. Eventually, the support was extended so I was fortunate in that I wasn’t forced to return to work whilst still having treatment. I’ve been really emotional and I’m not sure if I can hide it when I go back, any advice?Firstly, it’s ok to be emotional. You’ve had a horrible time and nobody will ever know what cancer is like, unless they or a loved one has experienced it themselves. I think it’s key to ensure that you are emotionally feeling ready to go back. We all know if we are going through inner turmoil it’s very difficult to be focused in work. You may be putting pressure on yourself to go back before you are really ready. To deal with some of your feelings, you may consider joining a support group or contact our Macmillan helpline on (0808 808 0000) who may able talk about how to deal with some of your feelings. Personally, I find talking to other people who understand helps for me. Finally, you might consider arranging a meal/drink with some of your colleagues before you go back to work. It could break the ice a bit and make going back less daunting. For more information about Bengu, please visit her Facebook page.
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