Working with cancer

Former ACEVO member Mary McPhail is now an executive/life coach and an associate coach with Working with Cancer. She shares her personal story of working with cancer as a charity chief executive.

First there’s the shock and the disbelief.

Then there’s the realisation that life goes on, that there are decisions – big decisions – to be made about how you are going to live your life as well as, for many, continue to earn a living.

Cancer is a disease that knows no boundaries and has, or will, affect us all either directly or indirectly during our lifetime. Many people living with cancer want to remain in or return to work. Most often, people living with cancer need their employers to make some allowances to support them.

I received my breast cancer diagnosis in May 2012. As the chief executive of a large international charity, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, I was able to have a full and open discussion with my chair and executive committee about how I wanted to manage the next six months of intense treatment. They gave me their full support to continue working through the cancer treatment. I was frank with myself and with work colleagues, that a time might come when I simply could not maintain the pace that I had set and I did have to reschedule meetings here and there as blood counts went up and down, chemo was rescheduled or infections took hold.

For the most part, however, I was able to maintain a steady, albeit reduced, engagement with work. I am well aware that not everyone is in such a privileged position to start out with and that for most people there is little, if any, choice about how to work/if to work. Sadly, we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that some workers with a cancer diagnosis are facing discrimination in the workplace. I am also aware that some treatment regimes, surgery and reconstruction are very severe, that each of us responds differently to treatment and that often any external engagement, let alone a commitment to work, is simply not possible.

I have no doubt at all that it was the right choice for me and that I continued to take good decisions, to demonstrate leadership in my role of chief executive and to add value to the organisation. In the midst of the emotional chaos and confusion of undergoing treatment for cancer I also felt somewhat in control, alive and connected to a wider world of colleagues, friends and community. There is clear evidence that work remains a very important part of the journey of recovery for those affected by cancer.

A change of career has led me to become an executive/life coach and my personal experience of having worked through cancer treatment has drawn me to become an associate coach with Working with Cancer. This is a groundbreaking social enterprise which provides a unique blend of individual coaching, training and consultancy services to employers, employees and carers so that they can support people affected by cancer to remain in and successfully return to work.

All the coaches have had direct personal experience of cancer and are passionate about supporting both organisations and individuals to understand that remaining in work during cancer treatment, or returning successfully to work following cancer treatment, is possible.

The services provided by Working with Cancer are being largely commissioned by the private sector. In writing this blog my intention is to bring this service to the attention of the not for profit sector to encourage a wider conversation about the day to day reality of work and cancer, and how chief executives can make a profound difference to the quality of the working lives of their staff who are living with cancer.

At Working with Cancer our intention is that more and more organisations understand the value of:

  • supporting individual employees
  • equipping line managers and HR departments with knowledge, skills and confidence to manage work and cancer well
  • harnessing their reputation to be an employer of choice.

Find out more or contact

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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