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Returning to work after cancer treatment

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Photograph by Chris Mitchell

When he was 58, Ian Spratley was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer. Over the next year he had three operations and chemotherapy. During this time, Ian kept a journal that people could read online (a blog). It detailed what he was going through and how he was feeling. Ian wrote about many aspects of having cancer with both honesty and humour. One of the many things he described was how he found going back to work after being off sick for many months.

A shock diagnosis

I was healthy, happy and fit - cycling, running, walking and playing in a band. So it was a shock to discover I had advanced bowel cancer. I actually went to my GP about something else, but mentioned in passing that I’d had diarrhoea for a couple of weeks. He did a quick examination and referred me to a consultant straight away. I was seen within two weeks and had surgery a month later.

Difficult times

I had two operations and then three months of chemotherapy, so I was away from work for a long period of time.

I could access my work email from home and I would dip in from time to time to see what was going on. But so much had changed in my absence that I felt as if I was eavesdropping on a completely different organisation. I also realised that I really missed being part of a team.

Being unable to work for a long period of time has financial implications. A drop in income can be a big deal when you find yourself with additional expenses. Transport and parking for various hospital visits soon adds up. After 28 weeks, the statutory sick pay from my employer ended. I was entitled to claim incapacity benefit, but this turned out to be a very drawn out process. In the end I realised that I would have to go back to work while I waited for the next stage of my treatment.

Back to work

My employer has been extremely good to me. I was encouraged to settle back in at my own pace and it was a nice welcome back. People were both pleased and surprised to see me and some told me I looked really well. I felt this was a bit of a mixed blessing. I had been very ill and I didn’t want them thinking that I had been skiving for the past 8 months. But I did feel well at that point, so I didn’t complain.

My biggest worry

As a result of my operation, I have a stoma. This is an opening of the bowel onto the surface of the abdomen. I have to wear a bag over the stoma to collect waste matter that would normally be passed from the body as a bowel motion. A leaking bag is one of the most upsetting aspects of living with a stoma and this was my biggest concern - I was very nervous about it. I suppose I’m lucky that my office is near a disabled loo, but dealing with the bag there was not the same as being at home.

I only stayed at work for a week on that occasion and it was spent mainly sorting out 9 months’ worth of mail. Then it was time for me to go back into hospital for further surgery.

So much had changed

I finally went back to work for real in January. I got a lot of support and did half days to begin with, until I got my strength back. But my anxiety level was high. I felt like the new boy at school.

My ability to concentrate for any length of time had deteriorated and I worried that I would not actually be able to do my job anymore. There were new people and new systems. I decided that the only way I was going to cope was to treat it like a completely new job. So I put myself down for as many training courses as I could.

I realised that not everyone was aware of what I had been through. One day I wandered over to the canteen to get a coffee. I met someone who had no idea that I’d been off work for a year. This had been the most eventful 12 months of my life, but some people hadn’t even noticed that I’d been away!

The importance of work

I did not want to be treated differently at work - but on the other hand I did want people to make some allowances. One of the difficulties with cancer is that you can look so normal on the outside and people have no idea what’s going on inside. Even after five months, I still find work tiring in a way that I didn’t before.

Having cancer changes everything - it can make you feel that you are not the person you thought you were. So work can be important to hold on to, as it’s a constant from your old life.

Sometimes work seems trivial compared with cancer. Of course, it puts a roof over my head and food on the table. But in the grand scheme of things, decisions I make or tasks I perform at work are not in the same league as some of the things I had to face during my year of cancer treatment.

Factfile

  • About 35,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year in the UK. It is the 2nd most common cancer in women and the 3rd most common cancer in men
  • Around two thirds of colorectal cancers are in the large bowel (colon) and one third are in the back passage (rectum)
  • In roughly 3 out of 10 people (30%) with colorectal cancer, the cancer will already have spread to another part of their body when they are diagnosed
  • Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are all used to treat bowel cancer

More information

Listen to Ian talk about his experience of having treatment for bowel cancer on the Cancer Research UK podcast. Ian’s blog will be published as a book later this year. ‘It’s not over till the Bag-Lady rings’ will be published by Spring Hill Books in August. A percentage of royalties from the book will be donated to Cancer Research UK.

Our bowel cancer leaflet includes information about awareness, symptoms and preventing bowel cancer.

These links will take you to CancerHelp UK’s information about

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Updated: 28 September 2009