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Blood cancer, coronavirus and starting my career

Nabeela talks about starting a new job during a pandemic, after shielding for three and a half months.

Nabeela at work

Nabeela was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 21. She's now training to be a pharmacist.

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Nabeela (24) was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at 21 while she was at university. She finished her treatment in 2018 and now has annual check-ups at the Christie where she was treated.

Find out how others have coped with blood cancer as a young adult.

I got the shielding letter in March. I felt it was an overreaction because my immune system seemed fine. But when I spoke to my consultant she said the chemotherapy I’d been on is known to cause long term heart problems and could have caused underlying damage to my lungs . She also advised that since very little was known about the virus and its effects, it was better to be careful.

I was in my final year of university at the time, so I moved out of my shared apartment and went home. I took my finals online in April, which was stressful, but my university handled it well and kept it as close to normal as they could.

Now I’ve started my pharmacy pre-reg year, which for me involves a job at a local hospital and professional exams. I started in mid-July – I decided I’d stop shielding as it was only another couple of weeks till shielding was paused and I reckoned it wouldn’t make much difference seeing as the infection rate was falling.

Reasonable adjustments

Before I started, I told occupational health and my clinical tutor at the hospital about my history of blood cancer. Then I discussed reasonable adjustments with them – the things I’d need in place to do the job.

Pharmacy involves being on your feet all day, and I still have fatigue (extreme tiredness) following my treatment. So it was agreed that when I’m on the wards, I sit down wherever possible.

Chemotherapy has also left me with an overactive bladder that I take medication for. However I still occasionally have flare-ups and need to go to the loo more often than usual. Depending on where you are in the hospital it can be a 10-minute walk back to the pharmacy, and so I’m allowed to have the codes for the staff toilets on the wards.

In a previous job as a call-handler for an ambulance service, I negotiated more toilet breaks, but in practice, the call monitoring system meant I was often challenged on the number of breaks I took, so employers don’t always follow through on what’s agreed.

It’s important to know your rights and stand up for yourself.

When you talk to occupational health or HR about reasonable adjustments it’s worth knowing that they will ask what you think you need, not just what the problems are. That can be hard because you may not know what you need until you start. I was lucky because I already knew the layout of the hospital and what the job entailed.

My tips on talking to employers:

  1. Know your rights: Blood cancer counts as a disability, so make sure you know what your rights are under the law. Get advice from your professional body, your union or ACAS if you need to.
  2. Employers want solutions: Work out what will help you do the job rather than just what the problems might be. If you’re not sure what the job involves before you start, ask questions. You can talk about adjustments again if things change or aren’t what you expected.
  3. Don’t overestimate what you can do: Think back to everything you’ve needed help with before, because you may need it again. My fatigue was under control because I’d spent over three months at home not doing much. It became an issue again when I started working.

Other people’s attitudes

People often notice if you’re working in a slightly different way to them and will make assumptions. One very hot day a colleague and I were waiting outside for a gas delivery for over an hour and as a result I felt fatigued, so I took a break at an unusual time.

I know that colleagues were complaining behind my back that I was just doing whatever I want, especially with me being new to the team. To work around this I made sure my tutor shared my medical history with senior management so any complaints wouldn’t reach me.

I don’t feel like making some big announcement about my cancer history.

My history of Hodgkin lymphoma is personal and I’m not sure I want to have to tell other people about it without bringing up the topic myself. But we do have to work as a team, so I know I need to work out how to handle this.

The impact of coronavirus

I live and work in area where cases of coronavirus are high. So I did have to think about whether I should work in a hospital right now. But I’ve already had to take a year out for blood cancer, and I don’t want to take another one. And obviously this isn’t a job I can do from home.

As pharmacy trainees, we don’t have that much direct contact with coronavirus patients. But there are wards at my hospital where people with coronavirus are treated, and we might get more involved, especially if there’s a second spike.

It was a question I asked before I started – will I be in contact with coronavirus patients? My clinical tutor recommended that I don’t work on wards where there are confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases, only the lower risk wards – another reasonable adjustment I’m grateful for.

At the moment I don’t know what the future holds. I’m just trying to get on with my career, one day at a time.

Life as a young adult with blood cancer

Watch young adults talk about their experiences of blood cancer, work and education

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