As October draws to an end, so does Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Our HR Consultant, Cathryn Foreman, shares some experiences of coping with cancer at work - and looks at what employers can do to ensure a supportive workplace.

As many of you will know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Many retailers support the initiative, and donate a percentage of sales of specific items to different cancer charities. It’s also the 25th anniversary year of the pink ribbon, a very recognisable emblem that many will be familiar with.

It’s a rather sad fact that breast cancer will affect 1 in 8 women, at some point in their lives. It isn’t choosy about the age of the women it invades – so there’s a strong likelihood that organisations will, at some point, have a female employee diagnosed with the disease.

Cancer is specifically covered under the Equality Act 2010 in Schedule 1, Part 1, 6(1). But, dealing with cancer in the workplace is so much more than being legally compliant.

Every person’s experience will be different. Their diagnosis, their treatment, their prognosis, and also how they cope and deal with being told they have cancer. What one individual may need from their employer, in terms of support or workplace adjustments, may be very different from someone else, even if they have a similar diagnosis on the face of it.

My own experience taught me that cancer was a mental health issue, as much as a physical one. I treated it as another project that needed to be managed. While I didn’t quite have a spreadsheet with a project plan, I did have a ring binder – with all the letters, appointments, information leaflets etc that I acquired during my months of appointments and treatment, neatly filed in chronological order. It still sits in my office at home.

I learned that the comments and observations made by well-meaning colleagues and friends were actually rather irritating, and the completely wrong thing to say. I didn’t tell them this, of course.

But I wasn’t ‘having a battle’, or some ‘fight’, and nor was I on a ‘journey’. Never tell someone they’ll ‘get through this, it’ll be alright’. You have no basis upon which to make such a statement. The doctors won’t say that to you.

Neither was I remotely interested in the experience of their friend, granny, or cousin – what their experience was, and how well they are now. It’s all about me, not them.

I was often told that I looked really well. I was – at least on the outside – as I had no symptoms, and no pain. But I really wanted to shout, ‘I’ve just had cancer, you idiot!’

I was lucky that, post-surgery, I didn’t need chemotherapy (and therefore kept my hair). I only required 15 days of radiotherapy treatment. I worked full time throughout, driving myself (unaccompanied) to my radiotherapy sessions, and then driving home again, before getting back behind the laptop.

I needed that normality and routine – as I say, this was a mental and emotional well-being issue, rather than a physical one.

It was helpful that I could work from home, and had a supportive employer. It would likely have been quite different if I’d had to go to an office/place of work every day, before and after radiotherapy sessions. I probably wouldn’t have coped in the same way, for a whole variety of reasons.

Radiotherapy can leave you fatigued, as well as causing skin irritation and discomfort, although, in time, both side effects will wane. Post-radiotherapy, you start medication, typically for a minimum of five years. The side effects of these drugs, in my case, are quite horrible – and have a big impact. The drugs cause menopausal symptoms of hot flushes, night sweats and arthralgia, causing very disturbed sleep and constant tiredness, which inevitably impacts on energy and concentration.

A year on from surgery, my cancer is no longer a topic for friends and colleagues. As far as most people are concerned, life is back to normal.

But it is not.

What the excellent Moving On course (provided by Breast Cancer Care) helps you with, is to find ‘your new normal’. It is different. I am different. Life is different. My body is different; I bear the scars and medical tattoos of treatment. Only my ‘boob group’ friends from the course really understand how I feel. Yes, I fully function at work and I socialise, but my perspective on life is different. What is important to me is different.

Employers need to recognise that, although their employee may be back in the workplace, they’ll most likely be changed in some way.

So, in the month of October, I urge everyone to be breast aware – take up those screening appointments if invited, and encourage female friends, family and colleagues to do so. Equally, we should be encouraging men to take up prostate checks, and other well man initiatives.

HR and occupational health, supported and endorsed by leadership teams, need to ensure that health and well-being policies encourage preventative action, and allow employees to attend screening programmes, as well as being supportive when unwell.

If organisations need to deal with cancer in the workplace, seek advice, be flexible and be led by the person with the diagnosis. Every case is different, and how people deal with cancer is different.