I slumped against the wall in my wardrobe, and my troubled head found a welcome rest on the doorframe. I was waiting. For the racks of corporate wear to materialise an outfit that I would feel comfortable in. Watching. The hems of skirts and dresses sway back and forth. Wondering. Would a slick work outfit be enough to restore everything I had lost?
I stopped work when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in March 2017. I had to. I had no choice. I was so weak and sick. My swollen liver, riddled with tumours, was crowding unapologetically into the rest of my organs, causing unbearable pain in the tip of my shoulder. My chemotherapy ravaged my body every fortnight. I was nauseous and dazed and at least for my first few chemo cycles, I couldn’t stop shaking. My brain refused to craft together a thought – let alone a sentence –in any kind of logical format. And I was so sad. Desperately sad.
When I was told I had maybe three years left, I didn’t just lose my work life in a physical sense. I chose to dump work, emotionally.
Why should I work, when I had so precious little time left? Work was not what I needed in my last years and months. I needed to create pure and passion-filled memories. I needed to be bathed in sunlight and sea breezes. Cuddles and chuckles, long and tender gazes. Soothing and quiet. The face ache that comes with laughing far too much. Simplicity and clarity. And abundant, absorbing love.
Instinctually, based on my albeit very limited death-experience to date, I wanted to eradicate anything that would bring about negative energy or angst or contempt. Who needed this in life? There would be enough of this in death.
Work was out.
But of course, this didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Because it wasn’t me.
Because actually, I love to work. In many ways, I live to work. I source an immensely important slice of identity – what it really means to be Nicole – from my work.
I used to think it was best to kept this a secret. And possibly, that living to work was something to be ashamed of. There are too many Instagram posts and coffee table books and diary pages and quotes of the day telling us that work should function solely as an enabler of our beautiful, fulfilling lives.
But no. I have worked in some truly extraordinary places with the best of great people. I have studied and studied to refine my skills and improve my performance. I have spent untold amounts of cash on management books (particularly in airport newsagencies, damn them!). My work is at the core of me. My family, my friendships, my work, my health, and the occasional glass of really good chardonnay – this is life to me. The futility of attempting to schedule childcare drop-offs and chemotherapy and a PET scan and a family dinner and a staff meeting and a grant application and a government contract within a five-day work week: this fulfils me.
So after a period of learning to understand my mind with cancer, and learning to accept my body with cancer, I gave myself permission to work. To see work as a central, defining feature of my life, that gave me purpose and focus. A mission and a sense of achievement. To go back, to work.
And all of this was just fine. In theory.
In 2017 I wrote an article about returning to work after having a baby. It was a reflection on how workplaces navigate an authentic journey towards gender equality – and specifically, the changes that our own business had faced in accommodating me as a new mum wanting and needing to go back to work. I published this article on LinkedIn on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017 – eight days before I was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer.
Going back to work, the second time, meant returning as a mum, and a cancer patient. This is a complex category to fall into, as the anxiety and self-doubts attached to the former were intensified by the latter. My definition of myself. The expectations others had of me. My belief in my ability to perform core tasks, never mind excel in my field.
The urgent attention we can draw to generating change for women in the workplace is critically important, just like the work we do to advocate for awareness of individual cancers. Nevertheless – I believe we probably need to think bigger. Perhaps, more completely.
As it turns out, there is a strong argument for considering how we make inclusive decisions for every member of our work team, whatever their personal circumstances. Because we are all human and could all benefit from a dose of tolerance – both giving and receiving.
Really, the changes that were needed to accommodate me as a cancer patient at work were not altogether different to the changes required to accommodate me as a new mum. Or, for that matter those needed to accommodate a patient with any chronic disease. Or a carer. Or, quite frankly, just, anyone.
Some days my needs were monumental. Others, I just needed a coffee.
I needed to be able to establish some flexibility to my work hours. I needed to feel supported and enabled and trusted. I needed patience and empathy. I needed my peers to take interest in my health and ask me about it without feeling scared – but I also needed us all to just forget about cancer and get on with it.
The toughest return to work conversation I had was actually with myself. Was I really ready to go back? Could I possibly contemplate a career now? Did I really want to take this responsibility on? Was I being naïve? Was all of this just wishful thinking?
These were the thoughts that dogged me as I watched a coat hanger sway silently in my wardrobe. Because of course – what on earth would I wear? The biggest hurdle in my returning to work was always going to be me.
My vote for inclusivity and tolerance of everyone and their unique needs at work is amplified, at least in my own head, when I consider that what I needed to return to work then is actually what I need every day at work now. And will need every day. For the rest of my working life.
There is an acute nature to a cancer diagnosis and the symptoms and side effects that first arise. A wack of change that makes everything different to what it was. The before and after that we attempt to solve for and understand immediately. Send flowers. Meet with the boss. Come up with a plan. Get back to work. But the stuff that impacts a person’s ability to work, at least in my experience, is far more chronic in nature. Lingering, persisting stuff. Changing, evolving, complex stuff. Mind, body, soul stuff. And if we have a conversation about what I need to return to work on day 1, we miss the point that what I actually need is a conversation on day 2, 5, 13, 24 and onwards.
But really – don’t we all?
Getting comfortable with the fact that, yes, I am a needy person at work – but that, critically, I endeavour to give as much as I take – has changed me. Given me confidence to recover from the self-doubt. And appreciate that it is more than a pencil skirt that gives me my armour to enter the work world.
And because I work with people who recognise my potential and create space for me and push me and coach me, forward, further, more, I have been able to radically evolve my understanding of my own potential, even with a chronic disease.
I have taught myself that there are monumental opportunities available if I decide to channel all that I am living for, to every facet of my life. To evolve this life experience into a beautifully fulfilling work experience.
Now, I choose to put down roots in the blur of work and life. And as to the question of how to schedule childcare drop-offs and chemotherapy and a PET scan and a family dinner and a staff meeting and a grant application and a government contract within a five-day work week – well, it is one of life’s great privileges to be in a position to attempt an answer.