Underneath the harsh hospital lights, a friendly nurse commented on how cheerful I looked. 'It's a rare treat to sit for a few hours with nothing to do,' I quipped as she bustled off to attend to another patient. It was true. I never stopped to do nothing.
It was the first day of Advent 2015. For the last eighteen months my life had played on fast forward. I was promoted into a senior management role at work with responsibility for more than 20 staff and a turnover running well into seven figures. The job, working for a FTSE 250 business information group, involved frequent international travel which usually came with a healthy dose of jet-lag. The free time I had was spent on the move. Training for and racing half marathons, long distance swims and endurance events often combining cycling, running and kayaking. If I wasn't training or racing, I was plotting my next adventure. Or renovating the London flat I shared with my partner. Or seeing friends. I just didn't stop.
The affable nurse made her prescient observation as I waited for a routine procedure to look at the inside of my colon. I had been booked in for the colonoscopy after a long period of unsettled bowel movements. I’d managed to squeeze in a visit to my GP the month prior and had reeled off a list of symptoms that I had assumed would lead to a diagnosis of stress related IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). He had referred me for a belt and braces set of tests, just to be safe.
Between meetings a few weeks later, I took the call with the results. ‘You have a raised calprotectin level,’ the GP had told me over the phone. ‘This can be a sign of IBD - inflammatory bowel disease - a class of disease which includes Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis. Neither of these conditions are desirable but both are manageable and, based on the levels of the protein identified, they are unlikely to be severe,’ he assured me.
I was in Rome on a business trip when, over a crackling line, I’d shoe-horned the appointment for a colonoscopy into my packed diary.
Eventually I was wheeled to theatre and then, before I knew it, I was being shunted back into the holding area, offered a cup of tea and told that, once I was ready, the consultant would see me. ‘Was I here with anyone?’ I was asked. ‘Yes, my boyfriend is in the waiting room,’ I confirmed.
I was ushered in to a small consulting room. I knew the that this meant bad news. During my wait for the procedure, I had watched others being debriefed by nurses and registrars in the open plan waiting area. We were different. We were being cordoned off. We were in need of privacy.
We waited. Me, who had celebrated my 30th birthday with friends and family that April, and my boyfriend, with whom I had cycled the length of the country just four months earlier, waited.
The consultant endoscopist arrived accompanied by another nurse I didn't recognise. She was introduced perfunctorily as a specialist nurse. My brain didn't have time to consider what she might have been a specialist in, before the doctor in one breath explained what they had found.
It was cancer.
A lot of people talk about a cancer diagnosis being life-changing as if, in the instant that the doctor delivers the grave news, the patient’s life and world outlook is immediately transformed. This isn’t the case. In the moments following diagnosis, once the words have been absorbed, my focus immediately switched to survival. All you can think about is getting better. Being cured. Surviving. It was only many months later, once the scars of a huge operation began to fade and the ill-effects of six months of chemotherapy began to recede, that the reality really began to sink in.
Midway through my treatment, I rushed back to work compelled to reclaim the identity I’d had before my diagnosis. I was an ambitious, successful professional woman and a run in with the big C wasn’t going to change that. But in the year following my treatment, as I struggled through twelve-hour days managing a wholesale restructure of my business, I realised that just donning the Hobbs shift dress and LK Bennett pumps wasn’t going to make me the person I was before. Everything had changed.
Twelve months after I finished active treatment for cancer, I acknowledged that I was suffering from a full-blown identity crisis. Who am I? I asked myself. A cancer survivor, the voice in my head screamed back. But I don’t want that to define me, I argued. The voice replied, too bad, that isn’t going to change. What do you want to be? Happy, I whispered.
With the unwavering support of my husband, we planned my great escape from the corporate world. I resigned my position, he negotiated a sabbatical, and together we travelled around Europe for three months in a campervan called Myrtle. The change of routine gave me a chance to reflect on what success really looked like for me and who I wanted to be in my post cancer world.
On our return home, I plunged feet first into a portfolio career writing, consulting and coaching running. I resolved to make decisions for my career with happiness at the centre of them.
Balancing the desires that come with surviving along side the realities of life is not easy. But when I’m struggling, I tell myself that I have been blessed with time which I may not have had and, for now, that is the most important thing to remember.
In 2015, I was following a trajectory familiar to so many ambitious, high achievers – working long hours, targeting the next promotion. I didn’t take the time to consider the path I was on until I was derailed by my cancer diagnosis hitting me like an express train coming in the other direction.
I have one piece of advice for anyone who has an inkling that there might be more to their story; don’t wait. Don’t wait for something as catastrophic as a life-threatening illness to review the decisions you’re making about your career. Here are some tips:
1. Buy yourself time
A three to 12-month gap in your CV isn’t going to ruin your career. Start saving for the career break that will give you opportunity to step away from your daily routine, evaluate what you enjoy and work out what does and doesn’t work for you.
2. Consider professional or life coaching
Coaches can be an invaluable sounding board to help you identify your priorities and values that will feed into your decision making around your career. Many organisations will invest in coaches for their high-potential employees so consider talking to your manager or HR team about this.
3. Surround yourself with people who will support you
You may be facing some big and difficult decisions. You may step off the beaten track that is a traditional career trajectory. There will be people who will not understand this decision and they may try to dissuade you. Whether it’s your partner, your family, colleagues or friends, surround yourself with people who will encourage and support, as well as hold you accountable to, the decisions that are right for you.
You can learn so much from the people in your network. There may be an opportunity lurking in there somewhere. There may be someone who can make that all-important introduction. Or perhaps a friend of a friend is doing the job you’ve always wanted to do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in pursuing the next steps in your career.
Natasha will be speaking at Management Today's Young Women in Business conference on 30th May. This one-day event is jam-packed with top tips, practical advice, workshops and turbo talks to help ambitious young women – from any industry – improve their performance at work and their prospects for the future. Other speakers include: Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at Mediacom and author of The Glass Wall; and Antonia Romeo, Permanent Secretary, Department for International Trade. Book your tickets here.