Going back to work after cancer

Here you’ll find a full transcription of our audio episode with Emily, about going back to work after cancer treatment. This project is in collaboration with Blood Cancer UK.


Emily: Remember you are what you’ve come through and be proud that you’re still going to work every day.

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Voiceover: If you’re diagnosed with cancer at a young age, it can feel hard to get your life back on track. Blood Cancer UK and Teenage Cancer Trust have caught up with Emily, who is back working despite cancer, and coronavirus.

Employers have to consider how they can support you in your work after a cancer diagnosis, by making changes called ‘reasonable adjustments’. Emily tells us about how her employer helped her as someone in remission from Hodgkin lymphoma.


Emily: So I was diagnosed when I was 21 years old. I’d been feeling exhausted for about six months prior. I’d been getting a lot of infections including a lot of cases of tonsillitis.

So I’m currently a maths teacher in a secondary school and I have responsibility for key stage 3. I’ve only been there just over a year now.

When I got the job, I didn’t tell them.

Starting afresh I was like, ‘I’m four years in remission’. I felt there was a stigma attached to cancer in a young person, and I didn’t want it to hinder my progression.

But I was being silly in my own head. Because actually work has been really great about it and the headteacher’s really, really supportive of me which has helped a tremendous amount, I think, in my confidence in what I can achieve at work and that it’s not going to hinder me.

Voiceover: So what made Emily change her mind and tell her employer about her cancer history?

Emily: I started noticing, for example, I was asked to do duty outside at break times, and my classroom, it wasn’t warm enough and I was really struggling because my nerves are all damaged from the chemo, especially my hands and my feet.

My line manager at my current school is really conscious about our wellbeing and how we’re actually coping, and she was really proactive in going and speaking to the senior leadership of the school and saying ‘this is what Emily needs to make sure that she’s safe at work’.

And they were brilliant, they ordered me a heater straight away. So as I said now I’ve got my own personal heater which I can take wherever I need to go. Or, for example, my break duties, I’m kept indoors so I’m not outside getting cold.

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Voiceover: So, it was all going well. Emily had told her school she’d had cancer. The school understood and agreed the changes she needed to do her job.

But then, coronavirus happened.

Emily: I was advised to shield. I also got a letter from the Royal Marsden telling me I needed to shield.

The pandemic and the lack of check-ups has massively had an impact on my anxiety.

I think I also felt a lot of guilt. I saw my colleagues going into work during that time and I wasn’t able to go in and I felt again really embarrassed about the cancer and what it had done to me and because of the side effects from it, I had to shield again and I felt really…I felt worried that people were going to judge me, people were going to think, ‘oh she can’t do it again’. And it also sent me back to the time when, again, I’m reminded I’ve had cancer. I’ve been reminded that I’ve gone through this and I’ve been reminded that my body isn’t OK.

Voiceover: The advice to shield stopped at the end of July, and when schools reopened for the autumn term, Emily went back to work in person.


Emily: So going back I wear a visor when I teach and whenever I walk around, which has been a shock to get used to but it’s just normal life now.

One of the best things I bought was one of those hand sanitiser bottles which attaches to my lanyard, so if you’ve got a lanyard, put that on, so you always have it wherever you go, so if I touch a door handle I’ve’ got it straight away. Cos that was one of my biggest fears, was touching door handles.

And I just ensure that I wipe down everything a lot more than normal and I’m really conscious that if someone teaches in my room that I lock all my stuff away so people aren’t touching the same things as me. But I think as a school, because we’ve all been really conscious about the coronavirus, I don’t feel that I have to do much different. I feel that we’re all trying to protect each other.

I get frustrated being in my 20s, still having to cancel plans, still having to relax a little bit or have to sleep a bit more or I can’t do this because I’m ill again or, I can’t go out and stand in the freezing cold for ages. It’s hard to accept and that your life isn’t going back to the same.

So I think it’s … it’s being confident in yourself that it’s not you, that’s causing you sometimes not to be the best at work.

Remember you are what you’ve come through and be proud that you’re still going to work every day.

Voiceover: This is a collaboration between Blood Cancer UK and Teenage Cancer Trust. Thanks to Emily for taking the time to share her story with us. The experiences shared were within coronavirus guidelines at the time of recording. For more information and support, contact Blood Cancer UK or Teenage Cancer Trust.

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