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Working his way back

Mart was diagnosed with myeloma in October 2020. He and his partner Kayleigh work at the same shopping centre – Mart as a duty manager in the security team and Kayleigh as a business performance administrator. We talked to them about how Mart got back to the job he loves.

Mart and Kayleigh dressed for work with their lanyards on

What did you tell people at work about Mart’s diagnosis?

Kayleigh: I think being in the middle of covid probably made it a little bit easier, in that we didn't have to mix with people. We told just a couple of people and both our managers.

I was the one still going into work, and I didn't want to have the same conversation with people all the time. If people asked, I just said it was Mart’s bad back. Because as soon as you say it’s cancer, people don't know how to react. By the time we told people, we could say, Mart's got cancer, but he's had his six months’ induction treatment, he’s in remission and will soon be having his stem cell transplant. So we had a positive spin on it.

I didn’t talk about it widely until June 2021. Mart had a blood clot and everyone was wondering why he was back in hospital. And so out it came in the morning meeting one day.

Everyone was always asking how’s Mart doing, when’s Mart coming back? Which was nice. And I'd tell them how he was doing, that he’d managed to cycle a certain amount – all those little milestones. And they were all behind him.

How did your employer react?

Kayleigh: Mart’s manager, my manager – we couldn't ask for a better team at work. They've been so supportive, right from the beginning.

Did you have to take time off work?

Mart: I was off work for 18 months. I had spinal compression and they told me I had to lay flat. That was for three and a half weeks. Then I was in a back brace for 14 weeks, which went from the top of my head to my waist. It was a slow recovery. I couldn't walk. I'd lost so much muscle on my legs that I had a trouble standing up. It was just seconds to start with. And I had no balance. It was strange, because in your mind, you know how to walk, but physically I couldn't. I couldn't get out of a chair.

I had chemo for six months, then I had a stem cell transplant with my own cells. I had a reaction to the blood thinner they used during harvesting the cells and ended with a blood clot on the brain and a few other places, which is very rare. But I got over all that and now I feel normal.

Kayleigh: I had a few days off when Mart was first diagnosed. But I was mainly working from home anyway. I gradually went back to the office after Mart had his stem cell transplant.

Mart in hospital, on a drip, looking cheerful

How did you get back into work?

Mart: I did a phased return. I started on four hours a day and worked my way up to 12 hours. That's my full shift – four days on, four days off, four nights on, four nights off then back to days. I just wanted to get back into it.

I was sharing the shift with another manager at first. And if I wanted to, I’d sit down for an hour or something. And my manager always said, if you feel you want to go, just go home. They've always said, just do what you can do. I can't ask for more.

Kayleigh: Once when Mart tried to do a shift he was flagging before he even got there, So I told his manager to send him home. And I think within an hour he was asleep. He was off a long while, so going back wasn’t just physically tiring, it was mentally tiring as well. Even to talk to people all the time when you're not used to it. It's quite overwhelming, what with covid and everything.

Mart: One of the worst places to work in covid, a shopping centre with thousands of people!

Kayleigh: And you weren’t fully jabbed up. So you have to be careful.

Mart: Yeah, but I just wanted to get there. Now I almost forget about what I've got and where I've been and everything. Just getting things back to normal means a lot to me. To be away so long, I mean, you're like, is my job still going to be there? And though my manager would call me up regularly, the team that I'm in charge of has all changed now. But I'm pretty much back to where I want to be. So everything that's happened, it's almost like it didn’t happen in a way.

Kayleigh: I had a meltdown one day when we'd gone into work. Mart went one way to his locker and I went the other way to my desk. I felt I’d had to let him out of my little protective bubble and throw him out into a shopping centre! But as I sat in the office, I could hear him chatting away like it had never even happened. Like we could have reversed two years.

Mart: I felt like I was just me again and I was where I should be. People were just glad I was back, weren't they? It makes you feel nice, makes you want to do your best in your job.

Tell us about the volunteering you’ve done

Kayleigh: We did a stem cell donor event at work for DKMS. Mart had a transplant of his own cells. But we know not everyone can, and it can be hard to find a match. So I thought we'll use the space we have at work where we’ve got access to a lot of people. Just to kind of get some awareness out there and get some people signing up to be donors. Mart did interviews with local radio and our local paper.

I also trained up to be a peer buddy with Myeloma UK to help support other family members of myeloma patients. People just need someone to talk to because mental health is such an elephant in the room. You feel you can't talk about it, but you absolutely should talk about it. If someone had said to me five years ago, “Oh, you're going to have to start joining support groups.” I’d have said, “That's not for me. I don't go and talk to strangers”. But I jump on them now all the time! Talking just makes everyone feel a bit more relaxed. You know you’re not on your own.

For more information about your rights at work, contact our Support Service on 0808 2080 888 or [email protected]. You can also read our information on money and work.

Kayleigh, whose partner Mart has myeloma, seated in front of a mic as she guests on the Blood Cancer Heart to Heart podcast

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