Karen’s Story (a blog by Karen Antcliff)

Back in 1998, when I was 28 and working for Zurich Insurance in Underwriting, I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. This was obviously a massive shock, but luckily it was caught quite early and I underwent surgery removing the tumour and one ovary.

I was off work recovering from surgery for six weeks and returned after that feeling fine and excited to be back. But very quickly I started to feel a lot of pain and my manager suggested I go home again – I was then signed off for a further two weeks. This time, I took it more easy, and got back into the usual swing of things.

Five years of scans and blood tests later and I was given the ‘all clear’. Time to relax and get on with life – I’d started to feel ‘normal’ again.

But then in 2010 I felt unwell again and went back in for more scans. At first I thought it was an infection, but they found a tumour from my remaining ovary to my breast bone which had killed one kidney and part of my bowel.

At this point I was admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London which led to two big operations to remove the tumour, one kidney, part of my bowel and a full hysterectomy (which at the age of 40 was a big shock). I was told the cancer was successfully removed and again felt relief at as normal life resumed. I’d been away from work for about four months, and went back to the office in a gradual way as soon as I could. Hey, I had lost weight too – and there’s no harm in showing off!

I wasn’t expecting things to be exactly as before, but after a few days I was struggling with tiredness and pain and had to slow down a bit. It’s a tricky situation to be in because your mind and professional desire to do a good job has to balance with what your body is telling you. I’d now survived two bouts of cancer, and I wanted to get back to my job – and not being able to had a big impact on my confidence. I had to work out what my own ‘normal’ was going to be, and this threw me.

It’s at this point where the support I got from my manager and team was so important. I was never made to feel that I wasn’t pulling my weight (well, I’d lost some) and always made to feel that I was in charge of how I handled returning to work.

Twelve months passed and, although the cancer was always on my mind, I was back at work full time and doing really well. But then the big shock… it was back and growing again.

I started treatment straight away. The tablets I was prescribed were similar to chemotherapy, but without the hair loss of sickness – but did cause bone pain and fatigue. I felt about 100 years old! While they didn’t clear the cancer, they did hold it steady for about two years.

13 years on from my first diagnosis and it was tough. I needed all the help and support I could get – with my health, at home, and of course at work. I didn’t want to stop working because I liked the continuity of work. I like my job and wanted to keep doing it but needed help to continue.

It’s at this point that my manager and I spoke to HR, who allocated me a dedicated person who I could talk to about my disease, treatment and any work issues whenever I needed. This person gave me an outlet and somewhere to talk about cancer versus work, and made my time at work much more positive and feel more in control.

Then in 2013, another shock – the cancer had started growing again and now the treatment became more complicated. Standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy wouldn’t work, and further operations were ruled out as difficult and dangerous.

I was starting to lose my battle to even maintain a sense of my new normal, and had to take time off work. This led to depression – it was a very difficult time. But a glimmer of good news in the form of approved funding for costly Cyberknife treatment gave me a boost. The treatment is a very strong form of radiotherapy which targets the cancer directly rather than radiating the overall area).

I felt saved – and partied hard that day!

I had two weeks of treatment with 45 minutes of radiotherapy each day – at one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. But that meant travelling away from family and home to London, and bearing the costs of travel and accommodation for my husband and me. Obviously all additional stress at an already very difficult time.

The treatment worked, and I set out once again to regain some normality. But this time back at work I found it so much harder to concentrate, and I was encouraged to stop for a while and get some counselling, which I did. Again my manager and HR were a crucial part of the solution, and we agreed that I could work part time (whilst also covered by sick pay).

I wanted to know about death in service benefits and with relief learned that this was unaffected by sick pay cover – this allowed me time to rest but also to attend counselling and an external support group. All of this made a huge difference and I began focusing on that ever-elusive ‘normal’.

Over a year later though in 2015 the cancer was back – and this time in my right lung. It was incurable. I changed drugs to something even stronger, but then the side effects were worse too. More bone pain and more fatigue.

To this day the treatment is keeping the cancer steady but with 5 tumours in my lung, issues like depression, pain and fatigue still linger. I have good and bad days but draw a huge amount of strength from family, friends and colleagues. I’m still working part time, and still have the support of my manager, HR and my team.

Naturally my life isn’t really normal, I’m less reliable than a healthy person might be, some days I need to be off sick or work from home, I can’t work long hours or travel a lot. This affects my confidence at work despite reassurances from my manager and team.

I also have hospital visits every six months in London and I generally find that two weeks before each appointment my sleep and concentration suffer. That is why it is so important to have managers and colleagues around you who are understanding and supportive.

For me, I deal with it my keeping busy but others may need to take time off work over this period and that is fine too. Everyone’s journey is different, there is no right or wrong and ultimately it is ok not to be ok.

In the last couple of years something through my journey made me want to do something else for anyone dealing with the impact of a cancer diagnosis. In a large company like Zurich, others will be working while dealing with cancer in some way, and this inspired me to set up an office support group. Somewhere where people could be with others going through similar experiences, and share their thoughts and feelings, get information and learn from one another.

Anyone who has to deal with the effects of cancer in their lives is welcome, whether with their own diagnosis or cure, but also to those who may have family or friends with the disease. Our time at work is such an integral part of our lives that it’s important to have support away from your usual network. The Cancer Support Group is always on hand to lend each other support. Sometimes it’s more involved, and sometimes just a chat.

I’ve talked about being ‘normal’ quite a lot – but over the 20 years since my first diagnosis I’ve learnt that there’s no such thing. You need to find your own normal, but also acknowledge that this will change over time. Let it change, don’t try and fight it. You’ve got enough to fight anyway.

But most importantly, never be afraid of asking for help and support. Every time I have, it’s been there for me by the bucket load.