UBM

Author Bio ▼

Charlotte Geoghegan is Event Manager for Safety & Health Expo, Workplace Wellbeing Show and SHP at Informa Markets. She is responsible for content, strategy and sales of physical events and digital products. She is also an active member of the Women in Health and Safety committee. Before Charlotte went into this role she was Head of Content for the Safety & Health Expo, SHP, IFSEC, FIREX and the Facilities Show. She joined Informa (previously UBM) in 2015. Charlotte has spent 10 years in media & events and her academic background is in modern foreign languages. You can find her on LinkedIn here https://www.linkedin.com/in/charlottegeoghegan1/
August 20, 2021

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Breast cancer – My story and advice for supporting colleagues – In conversation with Pauline Haggar

Pauline Haggar was diagnosed with breast cancer on 2 July 2018. What followed was an intense period of surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. She continued to work as much as possible throughout her treatment. In this interview, she explains how it affected her at work – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Colleagues provided Pauline with outstanding support and here she shares her opinion on how you can best help someone who might be going through what she did.

Pauline is an experienced Health & Safety Advisor, and at the time, was working on a client-led site, working for Engie in one of their Facilities management teams.

This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety. As a member of the committee my goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s my belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.

Two things have struck me throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, my hope is that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. I also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work and be there to listen.

Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.

You went straight into work the day after being told you had cancer. How did you want to be treated at work?

“I had to work out how much information I wanted to share and how much I wanted to keep to myself. I decided I wanted the team I worked closely with to be informed, but initially, while I was coming to terms with it, I didn’t want the rest of the site to know.

“If the team had questions about my cancer, I wanted them to come and speak to me directly – I didn’t want to be a point of rumor control. And I didn’t want looks of pity. I told them not to treat me any differently. I asked them not to wrap me in cotton wool. So, the people who would call me silly nicknames carried on with the silly nicknames. They treated me as normal and I could have hugged them for it.”

How did your management team handle the news?

“They were great. They asked me, ‘How do you want us to deal with it? What support do you need from us?’ I said, ‘Treat me as your normally would. Don’t keep any jobs from me. If I can’t do it, I will let you know. And if you ever have an issue with what I’m doing, tell me about it.’

“The first question asked at the ‘set to work’ start of every working day by the managers and supervisors is ‘how are you and are you fit to be here?’. When they asked that question, they weren’t asking to tick a box, they genuinely wanted to know. In my case, of at any point I said ‘You know what? I’m not sure I should be here today’ they would have said, ‘right, we’ll take you home’. They would have made sure I had enough tea bags, milk etc. In fact, one day when I did need to go home, one of the questions I was asked was ‘have you got enough chocolate?’!

“One of my bosses travelled around different sites, whenever he came to ours, he would always pick me up from home and drive me in. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t sticking around in the office longer than I needed to, which I often would otherwise. He was looking out for me which was appreciated.”

What about the wider team?

“At first, very few people from the client side, and other contractors knew what I was going through and that helped me continue doing my job whilst it sank in.

“I had two weeks off following my surgery. Then I went back to work whilst undergoing radiotherapy. I arranged it so I’d get zapped first thing in the morning at the hospital, then went straight to work. This was what I wanted to do, I felt comfortable doing it. What some people saw was me getting into work late every day. They didn’t know what I was going through.

“I would have to walk past a smoking shelter on my way from the car park to the office. I’d see the same faces in there most days, and they’d comment ‘Afternoon’. I wasn’t ready to tell them though, it wasn’t their business. I knew the reason would come out at some point, but I was still getting used to it myself.”

After surgery and 26 sessions of radiotherapy you went straight onto chemotherapy and continued to work during part of your treatment. How did things change then?

“My chemo ran in three-week blocks, after the second session of chemotherapy I lost my hair it wasn’t the best day, but I knew it would grow back.

“When I was a teenager, lots of people had perms. l took losing my hair as an opportunity to try a different style. In the shop I tried a dark brown curly wig, it really didn’t suit me, I looked like Joan Collins. Then I thought ‘I’ll try a blonde one’ and, I looked like Lilly Savage. So, I tried a pink & purple, burgundy bob, and it looked ok. It was November, cold and windy, and you don’t get a chin strap with a wig, so I wore a hat when it was windy as well!

“During weeks two and three of my chemo, I would try to get to site a few days a week. Otherwise, I had the laptop on at home. I liked being on site because I missed the team, and I craved the normality. And if I was having a pants day, I could stay on the sofa.

“When I was at home during the chemo, I would get regular calls from the Office Manager. She would ask how I was, then we’d be on the phone for half an hour talking about normal stuff (gossip). You have to keep in touch!”

How were you, emotionally, at the time?

“It rocks you to the core where you get that diagnosis. You don’t know how you’re going to adapt. You don’t how you will react to the medication; you don’t know if you’re going to get any side effects.

“You get stupidly emotional at the silliest things. And the slightest ache or pain would send me spiraling into ‘Oh, my God, what if…?’ when I think of it now, it was more likely I’d slept in an awkward position or the gentle reminder of my age.”

One the side effects was what you’ve called ‘chemo brain’. What’s was/is that like?

“It’s like a brain fog. It’s a side effect of some of the treatment, it can last for a while, everyone is different.

“I would totally forget people’s names. I’d have to describe people who I worked with instead of naming them, and people would look at me like ‘how has she forgotten that?’ Those momentary lapses have improved over time, and they will continue to improve. I’ve not forgot anybody’s name for quite for quite a while, but it’s still there.

“I got frustrated with it because you don’t want to be in the middle of a discussion with somebody, explaining why a particular process is so important, and then you can’t think of the words. I do a lot of things like word searches because it helps to stimulate my brain now.”

How did your life change after getting the all clear?

“After treatment you’re told you will learn to adapt to the new normal. Things that you could do before, you need to work up to doing again and it’s something I struggled with it. But it’s going really well, although my hair came back curly!!

“Most women are prescribed some sort of medication afterwards such as tamoxifen or letrozole. If one set doesn’t work, you can try something else. the treatment can put some ladies into an early menopause, which comes with its own challenges but the team at the hospital are great and answer any questions – they’ve heard them all before.”

Your employer also gave you access to counselling – how did that come about?

“I started back properly on a graduated return shortly after my last session. After being back at work for a couple of months I realised that I wasn’t feeling 100% and thought I should speak to someone. I have been a trained mental health first aider for a few years now. I called our EAP provider and said, ‘I think I need support’. They put me in touch with a counsellor who was local to me and Engie paid for the sessions.  I could have gone to Macmillan or to hospital, but I went the work way as I was trying to get back to normal. I was given the time off to attend these sessions, which helped me to get my head around everything I’d been through and that was invaluable.

“After that, I would encourage any of the team to speak to the people on the EAP if they needed someone impartial to talk to (above a mental health first aider). I didn’t hide that I had spoken to them myself, and that they weren’t business employees, they were trained counsellors.”

How did cancer change your approach to health & safety?

“I have more of an appreciation of how important life is. I used to find that if people would argue against health & safety recommendations, I would take it quite personally. I’ve been given a second chance but not everyone gets that. As a result of my personal experience and change in attitude, my message (when talking about health & safety) has often come across stronger. I’ve become like a dog with a bone, I don’t let it drop until I’m sure people get the point. Most of the time people do listen to health & safety guidance, but when you get one or two who don’t, it’s about persevering, and knowing when you need to go, ‘you know what, I need to escalate that one.’”

What would you say to health/wellbeing leaders who might be in a position to support others who are going through a similar experience to yours?

“Never, ever be afraid to ask the question, ‘how can we support you?’ Every cancer is different. You could have five people with breast cancer. But our treatment might all be different, and we might all need different support. If the person you’re asking doesn’t know what support they need from you, there are different avenues you can go down to find out.

“Anybody can speak to Macmillan and say ‘One of my colleagues isn’t very well. What can I do to support them?’ Macmillan have a pack, ‘how to how to support your colleagues’ and it has a lot of good information in it. You can ring them, and they’ll send it out to you.“In my hospital there was also an information centre, run by a smaller charity, who anyone could go to ask how to support others with cancer. They had so much information and every hospital will have one.

“Then there are small things you can do. If you know someone is going through chemo, you send them something to cheer them up or just give them a call. If they’re coming into the office, think about what you could do to their desk area – you might want to get them a different chair, something with a bit of extra padding. You might make sure someone else gets them a cup of tea, or coffee. Or if they might not be up to cooking, arrange for them to be taken out for lunch, or have it delivered. Simple gestures can make such a big difference.”

Useful resources for supporting colleagues with cancer

 Tips for line managers, by Macmillan
Buddying guidelines, by Macmillan
Cancer policy template, by Macmillan

Cancer Chat by Cancer Research UK: Chat to other people affected by cancer in Cancer Research UK’s online forum. Their friendly team of moderators and nurses are also on hand to support you.

Breast Cancer Now A safe space to connect with other people, learn from other people’s experiences of breast cancer and perhaps share your own.

Supporting and reintegrating staff into the workplace as they recover from breast cancer

It is estimated that 600,000 people are currently alive in the UK having been diagnosed with breast cancer. 13% of women said they could no longer carry out their job due to long-term effects caused by their breast cancer diagnosis. In this article, Addie Mitchell, Clinical Nurse Specialist at UK charity, Breast Cancer Now, spoke to SHP about how employers can support staff, following diagnosis.

Click here to find out about Breast Cancer Now’s Moving Forward courses.

Video: Talking about cancer at work, by Macmillan

Video: Making work adjustments for an employee being affected with cancer

Video: Managing the impact of cancer on a small business

Invisible disabilities in the workplace

Nichola Ebbern, Head of Health and Safety at Shepherds Bush Housing Group, shares her personal experience of living with an invisible disability and some advice for how employers can support staff.

For more information about the Women in Health and Safety network see our hub page here.

To learn more about the Women in Health & Safety Network workstreams and mailing list, click here.

Read more from this Women in Health & Safety interview series.

Developing non-technical skills and overcoming a lack of confidence

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we are joined by Anna Keen, Founding Director at Acre Frameworks, who provides guidance on learning the relevant skills to progress your career and delves into confidence, including how to present yourself and tips for leaders when dealing with Imposter Syndrome.

Click here to listen to this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast.

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Emily Scragg
Emily Scragg
1 month ago

Thank you so much for sharing your story Pauline! I knew some of it but it’s fascinating to read in more detail.