Returning to work after cancer
This year on the 2nd of February I was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. On 9th October 2022 I completed the Manchester Half Marathon surrounded by my closest friends, family, and colleagues. I think it’s fair to say a lot happened over that eight-month period.
At the back end of 2021, I had been seeing the physiotherapist about a pain in the left side of my abdomen. Nothing particularly unusual and with a desk-based job I had been prone to back problems. I found an incredible physio who could typically get to the bottom of an injury and fix it quickly but this one didn’t seem to be going away so he recommended I get some blood tests.
I had also spoken to my GP about the increased frequency of falling sick, with cold and flu-like symptoms seeming to come every few weeks. He didn’t think anything seemed wrong as I had a young daughter in nursery and most likely a reduced immune system owing to not mixing much throughout the Covid-19 period.
In any event, the blood tests showed that something wasn’t quite right. Upon getting a chest X-Ray it became clear there was a mass on my lung. I then had more tests, which confirmed the mass was cancerous, and with a series of more detailed scans I was diagnosed with a rare form of non-small cell lung cancer - one that makes up about 3% of all lung cancers.
When we think about lung cancer, we think about someone who’s smoked 40 cigarettes per day, or who is in their 80’s, or has a history of lung cancer in their family. The fact that I didn’t fit any of these patterns, and even more so, that I’m a 34-year-old man who has always prioritised a healthy lifestyle with a good diet and exercise regime – well, it made this all very confusing.
The learning curve for me was that, sadly enough, any person can get cancer at any point in their lifetime. Sure, there are markers and lifestyle aspects that may increase the chances but for some, it can be a completely random genetic mutation, as it was in my case.
Although it was tough when I first received my diagnosis, I was given some hope.
On 3rd March, exactly a month after discovering I had lung cancer, we were invited to The Christie Hospital to meet with my newly assigned Consultant Oncologist. As luck would have it, this incredibly devoted man is the leading authority on my rare type of lung cancer in Europe. He was the first medical professional to give me any good news after a series of unpleasant pieces of information in the month prior.
For my type of cancer, a new generation of targeted therapies have been developed, many of which have only come onto the market in the last five years. Mine is a genetic therapy that stops the signal that cancer cells send, ordering other cells to multiply and thus causing tumour growth. Effectively it stops the process happening, cutting off the supply to cancer cells, causing them to retreat. What’s more, the therapy comes in tablet form as a white pill taken once per day, with some side effects likely but nothing compared to traditional chemotherapy, which we all know to be not very pleasant.
Despite this good news, there was no guarantee that I would improve. There was only a 70% chance the treatment would work, and if it did, the side effects were likely to still have an impact on my life.
Within a week, it was clear the treatment was working. I felt stronger by the day and within a month, I was starting to feel normal. A few months in, I felt back to being me – running around after the kids, back in the gym, out for long walks and I’d even started running again. Somehow my body was able to take the drug without any side effects whatsoever. It almost felt too good to be true.
Return to Work
As soon as I began to feel better, I knew I had to be back at work. I cannot express how fortunate I am to work for a company that looked after me when things were at their lowest. The picture was bleak, but the people I work with did not stop believing in me.
One moment that stands out was a conversation I had with Grant Speed, Managing Director. When I was at my lowest and it seemed there was no hope, he told me not to think about work for a second, and that everything would be kept in a good place for my return. Next, he simply told me that he fully expected me back and didn’t care how long it took. I told him there was no chance, but he didn’t give up. This conversation was one of the first things that gave me confidence and sparked a fire within me. It also helped me to disconnect from work and focus my efforts 100% on getting through that dark period. Grant’s regular visits to Manchester to see me meant the world, and showed he wasn’t simply doing his job. It was more than that.
Slowly but surely, my confidence gathered pace. The outpouring of love and support I received from my colleagues added fuel to the fire. The hand-written letters from our CEO, Kester Scrope, made it clear I wasn’t just a number.
Shortly after, I saw my Head of Practice, Jes Ladva. Very quickly I realised that their promise to keep things in a good place wasn’t an empty one. Despite being one of the most highly productive and incredibly busy people in our industry, Jes had fully devoted himself to managing the hiring processes, company, and candidate relationships I was developing. Many of these people have commented on the care with which things were dealt with.
To only mention the leadership in our business would do a disservice to every single colleague who supported me through that period. I would need a much longer article to thank them all, but they absolutely know who they are. The world-class Odgers Interim team from our operations experts and executive coordinators who enable Grant and Jes to be such good leaders. My fellow fee-earners, without doubt some of the industry’s best, all of whom I look up to and aspire to emulate. My counterparts in our Odgers Berndtson and Berwick Partners brands, as well as with my regional colleagues in the Manchester office, and our wonderful HR team who were there for anything I need.
In our industry, there’s a feeling that any time off – even just a week-long holiday – means you’re missing opportunities, falling behind the curve and potentially slipping away from the action in the market. Odgers were adamant I’d be back and that they would enable me to return and reap the rewards of the market I had built up over the last three years.
In late June, when I was feeling back to full strength and ready to reclaim my life, I told Grant and Jes that I wanted to come back. After being on sick leave, I had built up a serious amount of anxiety around coming back. Did they want me back? Would I get my old role back? Am I going to be treated differently?
Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Grant announced my return at our company away day, and I’ve never heard a round of applause like it. I knew in an instant how much people cared and that I was valued.
Since my return three months ago, I’ve genuinely never had so much fun at work. Everyone I spoke with in that first week back, whether it was someone internal or external, was so gracious.
The reception I’ve had from friends, colleagues, clients, and candidates – old and new – has made me speechless. So much so that the lines between all these categories have become blurred. It makes me feel incredibly grateful that I get to come to work, spend time with people I really respect and get paid to do it!
The fact I’ve been able to become busy and productive again, in a short space of time, speaks to the quality of our firm. I can give myself some credit, that I’ve put in the work to forge lasting relationships with some great businesses – but that would not have been possible in the first place, and it wouldn’t have been maintained, without the world-class people and infrastructure at our disposal.
Being happy at work again helped the snowball of positive momentum continue, helping me return to full strength mentally and physically. This culminated in me signing up for the Manchester Half Marathon, which I completed on Sunday 9th October.
Running the Half Marathon
If 2nd February was the lowest point of my life, the 9th October was one of the highest – alongside the 31st August 2018, 1st October 2019 and 30th December 2021. The dates when I got married, had my first daughter Lana, and my second daughter Evie.
For the situation to have been turned around so drastically in eight months, for me this demonstrates the most important message that I want to spread. Four words: “there is always hope.” No matter how bleak things look, no matter how awful the hand you get dealt or seemingly bad luck that comes your way, there’s always reason to have hope.
A Message of Hope
Mostly I want people to know that if I can have the strength to come back, anyone can. That’s because I now know strength isn’t just something you’re born with, that some have and others lack – it’s something built up, accumulated over time, the culmination of all the good and bad experiences we’ve gone through in our lives.
To that end, I feel that in some small way, I’ve been training for this battle my whole life. For 34 years I’ve gradually built up my strength, physically and mentally, by dealing with the challenges that have been thrown at me. I’ve found tools that can help me but most importantly, I now know for sure that a person’s strength comes from the people around them.
Going through an experience like this, it’s common to re-evaluate every aspect of life. Your job, colleagues, relationship, family, friends, and so on. I’ve done exactly that and realised how lucky I am. These are all as good as I could have ever wished for, as are the people around me. My Mum, who’s been there for me every single day. My Brother, who’s the best example of a role model you could imagine. The brilliant set of mates I’ve got – most of which I met at the University of Sheffield, which happens to be where I met my wife, Francesca. I’d need an entire series of articles to explain what she means to me, and how much she’s helped me through. Let me just say she’s the most incredible human being I’ve ever met.
I am now more motivated than ever to do my job well, and ultimately help people find their way into work that they love. As it has been for me, it might just be the difference that helps them through the dark times, that gives them a sense of purpose and joy.
For all these reasons, I’ve got through the toughest period imaginable, and am now filled with hope for the future.