Julia on working with cancer

Sara sits on her sofa
Sara sits on her sofa

Julia was diagnosed with ovarian and womb cancer in 2011, and a year later the cancer returned in her lymph nodes, which required both radiotherapy and chemotherapy. After speaking to her consultant about side effects and her employer about the support available, Julia realised that working during treatment was possible and right for her.

Julia's story

I needed two operations, three weeks apart, and the longest time I took off work was six weeks. I didn’t initially know how long I would need to be off work, but was reassured when I found out about my sick pay entitlement.

When the cancer returned in my lymph nodes, I needed chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I asked my consultant whether I should or shouldn’t return to work during treatment. I knew if I could, I wanted to be working as it is something I love doing and it would help me feel that life was carrying on as normal.

They told me it could be possible, but that I shouldn’t feel pressured to do anything. They also let me know about side effects I might face, like tiredness. I found out what time off I would need for treatment, which for chemotherapy was every three weeks for six sessions.

When I spoke to my head of department, Judy, I found out that changes could be put in place to support me. This reassured me that I could return to work during treatment and not compromise my health. It was helpful that I had already been given information from the consultant about side effects. 

I knew chemotherapy would make me tired and I needed to be careful not to be surrounded by germs so we were able to agree changes to my responsibilities. Instead of teaching whole classes, I mainly did administrative tasks that didn't involve me having to stand up for an hour and were not stressful or urgent. I did some one-to-one work with children too, but if they were ill they wouldn’t come to see me.

During my radiotherapy, I had appointments every day for five weeks. Knowing that my employer could be flexible with my timetable helped me feel confident that remaining in work during treatment was the right decision. It also helped that I spoke to my manager about reviewing how things were going on an ongoing basis, so I knew I could approach her if there was a problem.

I teach at the same boarding school today, and this experience made me realise how much my employer supports and values its staff. My advice to anyone who wants to continue working with cancer would be to find the information you need about your situation, including the side effects you may face, and relay this to your employer so adjustments can be put in place. I think it’s also important to be prepared and to find out about legislation that protects you at work in case you need it.