Zoe, 42, was diagnosed with operable cystic carcinoma of the pancreas in 2017.

25 April 2018

October 2017, I’m 42, look well, feel well, fit, leading a healthy lifestyle and looking forward to what life has in store for me. Then the bombshell drops. Diagnosis – Cystic carcinoma of the Pancreas. Cystic what!? Panic sets in. I’m 42, this can’t be happening.

CT Scans, ultrasounds, appointment after appointment, blood tests, trips to various hospitals, calls with my insurer, work, clients, candidates, family, friends. The whirlwind hadn’t just started, it was tearing through every emotion, relationship and responsibility in my life. And it wasn’t letting up.

We see things relating to cancer all the time. Stand up to cancer, cancer research adverts, Macmillan charity collectors, friends and family raising money on Facebook. It’s everywhere. But it only really becomes relevant when it’s happening to you. It’s only then that you properly reflect, truly understand what it means and more importantly the impact it has on your life and all of those around you.

Having the surgery

The doctor called, I needed an operation.

And what an ordeal it was. I was told by my surgeon that they were going to remove 2/3 of my pancreas, a procedure called a distal pancreatectomy, along with removing my spleen and 16 lymph nodes. Woah… Hold on, 2 weeks ago I went to the doctors complaining of slight bloating, now I’m having 2 of my organs removed?

A cyst, measuring 15cm x 10cm x 10cm, had attached itself to my pancreas and the consultants were unsure whether it was benign or malignant. After 8 hours of surgery, the cyst was successfully removed and recovery started. A complex infection, followed by an internal bleed led to my stay in hospital reaching nearly 4 weeks. I’d gone from being focused on my job and my family to feeling my entire world was crashing down, within just 1 month!

They say you have nothing if you don’t have your health and before all of this I don’t think I ever stopped to think about what that actually meant. But when you’re lying awake at 3am with machines beeping and flashing, full of tubes pumping things in and around your body, suddenly that thought hits you hard. And what’s also startling is the support you receive, family, friends and colleagues, some you hadn’t spoken to since you couldn’t remember when, but all of them there for you. It’s very humbling.

My first cycle of chemotherapy

Fast forward to February 21st 2018. Sitting in the hospital cancer unit waiting room, about to go through my first cycle of chemotherapy. Fear and anxiety on overdrive. The tumour they removed was malignant, a 2cm focus of cancer in the wall of the cyst. I was very lucky. It was stage one and had not spread to the lymph nodes or other organs. But, because of my age, a 6-month course of chemotherapy was recommended as a precautionary measure.

As I’m writing this I have just come to the end of the first cycle. One month down, 5 to go. 450 tablets a month and 30 minutes of intravenous each week. It’s not very glamorous, but needs must.

The importance of a supportive employer

And it’s this part of my story where I want to focus on work. How it impacts you and how important it is to have a supportive employer.

I struggled with fear, the financial impact of being off work, losing important relationships with candidates and clients, worrying about what colleagues will think, your mind goes into overdrive. The team were absolutely faultless. Hospital visits from the CEO and Chairman together with countless other colleagues, financial support and a genuine feeling that they care about their employees. I can’t state how important their support was in helping me in my recovery. It also makes you consider new things for the first time in your life… Have you got a will? Critical illness cover? Financial protection? All things so easy to overlook, but ones that become increasingly important when you least expect it.

It’s so important, when going through so many dark moments, when you’re reflecting on all parts of your life, to have the unconditional support of your employer. And if you’re reading this as someone in a similar situation to mine, or as a manager, employer, business owner, please have a think about how you’d approach a similar situation. I’d also recommend to anyone going through what I have been, to be open about your condition to your employer and those around you. Cancer is nothing to be ashamed of, the quicker the stigma is removed from your mind, the better.

Chemotherapy is tough, both physically and mentally. My employer has enabled me to take time off for appointments and treatment, allowed me to work from home 4 days a week, offered free occupational advice and made many adjustments in my day to day activities to ensure my transition back into the workplace is as smooth and easy for me as possible. For this I am forever grateful.

A new focus

I never in a million years thought I would be dealing with this at 42. From being a busy mum and recruiter, to becoming a cancer patient in a matter of weeks has changed my perspective on all parts of my life. It’s given me a renewed focus, helped me focus on what is important in life… friends, family, support. It’s also taught me to be positive. As Winston Churchill famously said ‘If you’re going through Hell, keep going’. As someone recovering from cancer, that’s all you can do. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it’s shining bright.

I am dealing with the chemotherapy well, I have transitioned back to work almost seamlessly, any faith in humanity that had previously been doubted has now been well and truly restored. Whether it’s your employer, your partner, your friend, your colleague or a member of your family, don’t underestimate the power of support during the difficult times. I just hope I get the chance be there for them all, if and when they need me.

April 2018