Secondary breast cancer: The work life/cancer balance

Ismena Clout
boardroom 225x300 Secondary breast cancer: The work life/cancer balance

(Getty Images)

Life hasn’t quite worked out how I expected it to and I do have a tendency to walk the harder path (i.e. drop out of uni, then have to work up the career ladder from the bottom) but I didn’t plan to walk a path on the edge of a cliff, with loose boulders that could fall away at any time.

But I’m on this path and I can’t change it, my secondary breast cancer diagnosis in December 2010 pushed me that way. I have made choices in my life to make sure I could always work. For example, I trained as a personal assistant when I dropped out of university. I wasn’t planning on it being my career but more my gateway into the working world that a degree would have provided. I knew no matter what happened in my career I could always fall back on it if I needed to. It’s not that I was outwardly planning to never claim benefits, more that I would always try to find work if I could and making sure I had skills that could be applied to many areas.

But then along comes incurable cancer and it all changes. I carried on working with my employer even through my really tough chemo and into remission; they were amazing and looked after me well. But I felt guilty the whole time, I felt like I was taking money and not doing any work, which was against my moral compass. I saw people working long, hard hours for the same money and I wasn’t.

During the chemotherapy I was too ill for a week after to really leave the house. And it’s not just the physical symptoms; it’s the complete lack of brain activity that’s the worst. Not being able to concentrate, think or plan. Then in the better two weeks I had to cram as much work in as I could, but you never knew from day to day how you were going to feel so plans were constantly cancelled at the last minute. That’s hard for any workplace as you need to be reliable and cancer can make you incredibly unreliable.

Once I was in remission there were two major surgeries that took me out of the office for long periods. When I was there I was in so much pain and felt so tired I wasn’t able to do an awful lot. So in summer 2012 while recovering from my spinal surgery I realised I couldn’t do full time work anymore. I was in too much pain to commute on the tubes, I was too tired to do full time hours and I wasn’t able to give the best that I can.

My employers were great about it all and after setting up my own company I still provide consultancy work for them. It’s given me the flexibility I needed. One thing I hadn’t planned perfectly for was a new diagnosis and chemo cycle exactly as I set the company up.

In the summer of 2012 my company was set up but officially launched in January 2013 and has a few purposes. The first is it gives me the flexibility to work when I’m well enough to and rest when I’m not with no guilt of someone paying me for work I’m not doing. Also, I can work from home which means my cats get really spoilt and I’m not suffering from the commute before I’ve even got to work.

Also it’s giving me the chance to just do the work I’m good at and get satisfaction from, that is consultancy in my industry – facilities management and as mentioned for my old employer. The immediate change in my diagnosis has meant that I haven’t been able to do a lot of work as I have been too ill, which is starting to affect my savings.

But the other benefit of going out on my own is that I can explore other areas too. If I was going to see my full life out then I would have around 30 more career years ahead of me. But as I don’t have that time, I figured I’m going to try and fit in a life time of work in the next few years! So, still ambitious then. I want to train as a coach to help those with life threatening or limiting illnesses, I want to do motivational public speaking and have done some gigs already, finally I want to develop my writing.

So necessity and circumstances have put me on a path I didn’t want or chose, I’ve had to let go of so many ambitions and dreams like being CEO of a facilities company, being head of facilities for the Royal Opera house. In the end though it’s made me find a new way of living that, although has risks, is suiting me very well at the moment.

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  • clouty

    You go for it, Issy! It’s impressive how you make the best of what life gives you while fate disposes of your previous plans. It’s all about acceptance, in many ways, acceptance of what is and can’t be changed. Great blog, as ever xxx

  • SophieMarshall

    You seem tireless in your willingness to inspire others and this despite the ” chemo brain” and inevitable exhaustion that besets you. I wish that the pain management could be more effective. What spirit and what drive. You really have a zest that makes me marvel. All the best, Ismena.

    I always read and enjoy your blogs but am not always sure about commenting. I know several other people who are similarly disposed. I’m not sure if this is a response that would please me in your position because of the obvious lack of feedback. It does seem rather inane to be concerned about saying the wrong thing.

    Thank you for your continued strength and generosity in sharing just a little bit of your thoughts and life experiences with us.

  • Ismena Clout

    Always happy to hear your comments, especially nice ones like this! Please don’t ever be scared to write what you feel, part of the deal of putting yourself out there is the response you get. Luckily I have Breast Cancer Care supporting me so if something is written that upsets then they look after me!

  • Claire S

    Having done 3 months of chemo I take my hat off to you for even having the constitution to try to keep working. Power to you and your resilient body and brain!

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