In this guest blog, Gemma Savory, Community Marketing Manager, Bladder & Bowel Community shares her return to work following cancer treatment and the barriers she faced - in the search for work and unconscious bias to the commute to the workplace.

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It was the 8th October 2014, midday to be precise and I was sat in a little side room in Birmingham Women’s Hospital with my husband. “I’m sorry Gemma, but what we have found is cancer.” The consultant’s words started ringing in my ears and I zoned out to anything else I was told. Nodding randomly to all this new information that was thrown at me.

At that point, we didn’t know what type of cancer I had but after months of going to my GP with symptoms and being turned away and being told I was “too young to have anything serious”, I was strangely relieved to find out what was making me so ill.

It turned out that I had bowel cancer, at that point a stage three tumour that had grown so large it had burst through the bowel wall. I started treatment straight away and after having 18 months of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and two major bowel surgeries that resulted in a permanent stoma, I was put into remission.

Going through cancer treatment had not only been tough physically and emotionally, but had also put a strain on us financially. I was unlucky in that the day after I found out I had cancer, I was also made redundant from my job as an account manager for a marketing agency. I stress that this didn’t happen because of my cancer diagnosis, it was just a series of unfortunate and badly timed events in my life. For the next year or so, we struggled through using credit cards to pay bills.

Back to work

In August 2015, I decided that we couldn’t continue like this, I had just about recovered from my Abdominal Perineal Resection (APR) surgery, but I was still having weekly chemotherapy. I decided to start applying for jobs with marketing agencies, as it was what I knew. Now anyone who’s worked within marketing knows that it can be quite a fast paced environment with lots of deadlines. I was getting interviews but once I explained my position I was getting turned down, which was really disheartening. Eventually I got offered a role, with a lovely agency who already knew about my situation, through a friend who already worked there. We agreed that I would work for them as a freelancer, which meant I could take Friday afternoons off to have chemo.

I was excited to start getting back to ‘normal’ but I also felt extremely anxious as I wasn’t used to spending entire days away from home with my stoma. To help ease my anxiety, I purchased a foldaway wash bag so I could carry spare stoma supplies with me to work, and a spare hot water bottle to help with stiffness and pain following my surgeries.

My first day at work soon loomed round and the agency I was working for was in Birmingham City Centre, so getting the train was the best option for me as it was cheaper than parking. With it being the early morning commute, it meant that I wasn’t guaranteed a seat on the train, so I did find it hard going some days as I struggled a lot with fatigue. From the train station, the agency was a 20 minute walk (for me) uphill, and I soon learnt that I had to factor in extra time to stop and catch my breath on the walk. I found this the hardest part of my day and it felt pretty humiliating that I wasn’t able to do something as simple as walking.  I would often find myself hiding from colleagues heading in the same direction as I knew I couldn’t walk at their pace. Once I got to the office,I was usually a hot, sweaty, breathless mess!  On the first day, I sat down with my boss and we discussed the account I was working on and also what adjustments I may need to help me in the office. I explained that I had a stoma and that my APR surgery meant that I struggled to sit for long periods of time and that I often got tired quickly due to the chemotherapy I was on. I was given a desk nearest the toilets in case I needed to make bag changes and a cushion to sit on to help with the pain of sitting. Luckily, all the toilets had a sink in them, which made bag changes easier. I was lucky that my colleagues were so supportive.

Despite all the support, I still found working full time difficult. Commuting was exhausting, some days I was tired and in so much pain that I had no choice but to get a taxi home, this would often end up costing me £40, so it wasn’t a sustainable way for me to travel. I would work all week, have chemo on Friday and then I was ill in bed all weekend. Chemo brain (where your brain feels foggy and you become quite forgetful) meant that I struggled to take in information and I constantly worried about what my colleagues thought of me, especially as I was still too unwell to join in any social activities. Ultimately, I had to take the decision that going from not working to full time was too much for me and I left my role.

Working from home

Not long after, I was contacted by the Bladder and Bowel Community to write some content and my role with them has grown since. I’m lucky in that it means I can work from home, especially after my cancer returned twice and my treatment meant I was forced onto dialysis. Working from home means I can incorporate my treatment around my work and I can rest if I need to. I also love what I do, as I can help support those who are going through similar situations or who are struggling with bladder and/or bowel conditions in general.

Although working full time for me isn’t an option, there are plenty of people who slot back into working life following cancer treatment. If I was to offer any advice, it would be to be prepared!

  • If you have a stoma/catheter or experience bladder or bowel issues following treatment then make sure to carry a bag with supplies and a change of clothing ‘just in case’.
  • Get a Sunflower lanyard to help with your travel on public transport, it’s something I wish was available to me at the time, as I find it very useful now.
  • Carry a ‘Just Can’t Wait card’ in case you need to access a toilet urgently.

Finally, be honest with your employer about your condition and how you’re feeling. I spent a lot of my time trying to hide how unwell I was for fear of losing my job, when I really didn't need to.

About the Bladder & Bowel Community

Their aim is to break the taboo of living life with a bladder or bowel dysfunction, diversion or condition, raise awareness and most importantly, help people. With a staggering 14 million people a year in the UK suffering from bladder and bowel conditions at any one time, their support network has become a vital lifeline to many, supporting them in achieving their goals and aspirations.

Whether you’re looking for information about a particular condition, the treatment options available, or just simply want to chat with others who have shared a similar experience to you, then you can do so here.

The free ‘Just Can’t Wait’ digital toilet card is available from the Bladder and Bowel Community.

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