When cancer and careers collide

Written by
Karam Filfilan

22 Oct 2018

22 Oct 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

Shereen Daniels knows what it feels like to go to work with cancer.

“I’d rock up with no hair. I had a PICC line (a catheter to administer chemotherapy) stuck in my arm, so I had to wear long sleeves whatever the weather and I’d always have a bagful of pills and Ibuprofen.

“My chemo would be on a Thursday for 5-7 hours, then I’d take a day off on Friday, sleep all weekend and be back at work on Monday with painkillers,” she smiles.

“It wasn’t until I’d finished my chemo that I told my bosses I had cancer. I’d just been saying I had pre-booked holiday.”

Diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma in April 2012, Daniels had quit her previous job due to a lack of support from her employer when she told them she was ill. Single mother to a four year-old daughter – and a natural networker and high-performer – she continued to look for employment, interviewing for several roles before taking an HR manager role. Throughout her interviews and into her new job, she made a conscious decision not to disclose her illness.

“I had no idea how to broach the idea that I had cancer. It’s one thing to be in a job and tell someone you’re ill. I’d done that and was shocked at the lack of support. When I was job-hunting, I didn’t want to run the risk of people knowing and then doubting my ability or rescinding an offer, so I didn’t say anything,” says Daniels. 

Supporting those in need

Cancer is the single-highest cause of death in the UK, with 163,444 people dying from the disease in 2014, according to charity Cancer Research UK. However, survival rates have doubled in the past 40 years and are continuing to improve. Half of all people diagnosed with cancer in the UK will live for 10 years or more, and for those living with cancer, it can become a long-term, chronic condition.

In an ageing population, more of us are going to have to face cancer in the workplace, whether it’s our own diagnosis or that of a colleague, or working with someone caring for a loved one. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates there are 700,000 people of working age with a cancer diagnosis. Factor in the 500,000 carers of people with cancer and that’s more than 1.2 million employees affected by the disease. In an age of wellbeing and emotional intelligence, business leaders need to be able talk sensitively about the issue.

This is why Macmillan Cancer Support launched its Macmillan at Work programme back in 2014. Designed to provide employers with the training and resources to help employees dealing with cancer, the programme provides leaders with free toolkits, workshops and in-house training to help HR departments support their people.

The charity is also trialling a Cancer for Coaching programme, which supports people with cancer through their diagnosis, including one-on-one advice sessions around returning to work.

For Macmillan HR director Dawn Wilde, it’s about ensuring employers understand the needs of their staff and are not afraid to talk to them about difficult things.

“It’s hard to know how to respond when someone has been diagnosed with cancer,” she says. “Everyone wants a different reaction. Some people want to carry on as normal and others want everyone to be aware so they can get support.

“It’s ok not to know what to do, but it’s in the dialogue with the employee that you find out. They’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s about learning how to have those practical conversations and that’s what we try to encourage through the toolkit.”

Like many of her colleagues, Wilde had personal reasons for applying to work for Macmillan Cancer Support, joining the organisation from a retail background after her father died of cancer. As a member of Macmillan’s leadership team, she sees her HR role as part of the charity’s aim to ensure nobody faces cancer alone and that support is offered at all stages of the journey.

“Our research shows the point of diagnosis is one of the most traumatic experiences for someone who is ill, so how can we help?”


Personalised approach

The advice from Wilde and the Macmillan team is to listen to your employee, empathise, and take your lead from them.

Giving an opinion or advice can be unhelpful. Daniels agrees that taking a personalised approach, and listening, are key. It’s easy to cause unintentional distress through well-meaning but poor advice.

“Most people going through health issues are very aware of what they can and can’t do,” she explains.

“If an employer starts to tell someone what they’re able to do without checking, it becomes a double whammy. Some people don’t say anything because they’re fearful of losing their job or promotion prospects. If you’re a high-performer, you become ‘the person with cancer’ and not the high-flyer anymore. “People say things like ‘focus on getting better’,” she adds. “Trust me – you don’t get better by sitting at home. Whatever you can do, do it. That was my way of coping.”

For many people with cancer, maintaining a link with an employer is a vital part of recovery. A job may provide normality, routine, social contact and a reminder of their pre-illness personality – and financial security. Line managers are often the first person a newly diagnosed employee will talk to, so it’s vital to provide adequate support. Daniels recalls the shock her colleagues felt when she finally told them about her illness.

Four years into remission, and in her role as Caffè Nero’s head of HR, she is mindful of not forcing her approach on others. “I’m not sure my way was best,” she admits. “If people don’t know, they can’t help. I’d be horrified if someone in my team was going through the same thing and felt they couldn’t tell me.”

Focus on the individual

She is critical of the way many businesses approach occupational health and an employee returning to work after ill health, observing that it is often designed to be a first line of defence for the business, rather than a focus on the needs of the individual. This, she believes, is why there are few examples of people who experience illness staying with a company and going on to progress. The consequence is a reluctance to discuss illness, leading to stress and isolation.

“If we truly want to talk about inclusion, it’s not just about gender or skin colour. It’s about when people experience difficulties. How do you support them and focus on what they have to offer? We’re all human and at some point we’re all going to experience a hiccup – even the most senior person.”