Thursday, 29 November 2012

Can you work whilst being treated for cancer?

Over the last few years, I've had a number of different treatments that aimed to cure me of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and the severity of the side effects from those treatments has varied from one extreme to the other really, so whilst at times I could have easily worked, there were also periods where it simply wasn't even a remote possibility.

For the duration of my first line of treatment, i.e. six months of ABVD chemotherapy as an out-patient, I actually worked from home, and despite going into hospital for various appointments, tests, scans, procedures and treatments, I'd imagine that I still did more than my contractual hours/obligations. The occupational health department at the company where I worked at that time did suggest reducing my hours, and my colleagues had no real expectations in terms of how much work I would get done, but, even though the side effects of the treatment weren't nice, I didn't really feel that unwell that I couldn't work, and if nothing else work provided a distraction from it all, so I really just carried on (and got paid) as normal. In essence, all that the treatment really meant for the company was that my colleagues were unable to contact me occasionally, and, even then, in the vast majority of cases it was only for a few hours or so. The company seemed to have no problem with my absences etc, as all that I was asked to do was to keep HR and my colleagues informed of when I would be unavailable; Now that I think about it, I probably had less time off work being treated for cancer than some of my colleagues did to recover from colds!

For the duration of my second line of treatment, i.e. DHAP chemotherapy, BEAM chemotherapy, Autologous Stem Cell Transplant and radiotherapy, I didn't work at all. The reason being that the very day that I found out my Hodgkin's Lymphoma had relapsed also happened to be my last day at work, as I'd just been made redundant. Whether my medical history influenced that decision I'll never really know for sure, but, at the time that the decision was made, my employer didn't know about the disease relapsing, i.e. all that was known was that I'd had the disease previously, and that it could potentially come back one day. At that time, I was also living with a relative, as I was waiting for my new house to be built, hence whilst there is never a good time for cancer to relapse, there are no doubt better ones than I found myself in. All of that aside though, there were some periods during this treatment when I was well enough to work, but it would have been the odd week or so here and there, so in reality it may have proven impractical to do so, even if I did have a job, and I probably wouldn't have wanted to spend that time working anyway, as otherwise I'd have only ever been unwell or at work. There were two main reasons why the second line of treatment was a different experience: it was much more aggressive, and consequently the side effects were much worse at times; and it involved spending a fair bit of time as an in-patient.

Note: On one occasion, whilst the doctor was prescribing the ABVD chemotherapy, I was explaining how the future of the company where I was working looked quite uncertain, and that my parents were planning on selling their house, which was where I was living at that time, to move to Tenerife, hence it would be quite funny if, all in one year, I ended-up being homeless, made redundant and diagnosed with cancer! For the rest of that consultation, the doctor occasionally/spontaneously started laughing, as despite the doctor's best efforts to put that thought aside, it kept finding its way back again. Of course, unbeknown to me at the time, about a year later, I would actually find myself homeless, made redundant and rediagnosed with cancer on the same day!

In the end, I was out of work for thirteen months, the majority of which was spent having or recovering from the treatment, before I started a new job. During that time, I received the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) benefits from the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP), which given my circumstances provided enough of an income for me to manage, which is fortunate really as the last thing that I needed to be worrying about was paying bills; I could easily see how some people, in different circumstances, would find it financially stretching though. Once I actually started applying for jobs, I did quickly notice that explaining that the recent gap in my employment history was due to medical treatment didn't work out very well for me: I was never offered an interview when I mentioned it when applying; I was offered an interview, but never got the job, when I mentioned it at the interview; and I was offered the job when I never mentioned it at all. It could have been a coincidence, but the pattern certainly did seem to be telling, and to be fair I can understand why it would make potential employers think twice, especially when buried in applicants. One thing that did amuse me though, after three months of being back at work, when the DWP finally cancelled my benefits, after I got in touch with them to remind/chase them about doing so, was that I then received one final payment to help me get back to work!

To date, for my third line of treatment, i.e. IVE chemotherapy and Brentuximab Vedotin (an antibody treatment), I have been on sick leave through-out. It has actually been nearly six months now, and my current employer have been much better than I expected about it, as they have generously continued to pay my full salary each month, even though I had only been there a year when going on sick leave, and they had no contractual obligation to do so. During that time, I have also been receiving the DLA benefit, hence coping financially hasn't been an issue. Looking back on the recent treatments: I couldn't have worked for the first couple of months or so, whilst having the IVE chemotherapy, as I spent most of that time in hospital, so there were only a few days when I was at home and mostly felt okay; and I could have worked some times since then, but the uncertainty around what treatment I would be having, how I would respond to it, and whether it made sense to spend that time working, meant that even with the wisdom of hindsight I'm still unsure what's best.

One final point of amusement, and what actually prompted me to write this post, was that today a letter arrived from the DWP informing me that I would soon receive my Christmas Bonus! It's best not to get too carried away with it though, otherwise I might spent all £10 of it at once! Working in I.T., my instinct was to google it, and it turns out that back in 1972 when the Christmas Bonus was introduced, it was £10 then too! Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate the gesture, but I can't help but think that the government could find a better use for this money, as, when combined with the administration costs of providing the Christmas Bonus, I'd imagine it amounts to a sizable sum; one that could potentially make a real difference elsewhere!

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