This National Inclusion Week, Competition Services Director Helen Trusler (she/her) shares her experience of receiving a cancer diagnosis and treatment during the pandemic. She also talks about what supported her the most and what progressing her career through serious health challenges can teach others.
I'm a director in the Competition Services team, which sits as part of the wider Forensics practice. I'm responsible for managing projects where we serve as the Monitoring Trustee, reporting to competition regulators on business' compliance with commitments they've made to remedy competition concerns.
I joined Grant Thornton 22 years ago as an audit semi-senior in the Northampton office. I then joined the Forensic practice in London four years in, working on a mixture of disputes and investigations, including two secondments to the Serious Fraud Office. I started assisting on monitoring trustee cases in 2011 and have worked within this area full time since 2014.
I was terrified I was going to die
I only had occasional minor health issues in the past, until November 2019, which is when I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer. The diagnosis was shocking and frightening to hear, and both the consultant and breast care nurse could not provide any reassurance regarding likely outcomes.
For the first few days after my diagnosis, I was terrified I was going to die. However, once I spoke to a different surgeon, my mind was put at ease that the ten-year survival rate of those diagnosed with breast cancer was at least 80%. I was told it was likely it'd been caught early and was unlikely to have spread.
Everyone in the team has been amazing and incredibly supportive
I felt very comfortable sharing the news with my colleagues, as I knew they'd support me. Having worked with the many people in my team for the best part of 20 years, they have become good friends with whom I feel very open. My team was happy for me to work when I felt well enough to and helped me by picking up client work when I wasn't able to.
The most important support I had was being able to use the private healthcare scheme that the firm provides for all of my treatment. This meant that I had more immediate care and gave me better control over my treatment. One of the scary aspects of living with a cancer diagnosis is the lack of control over what is happening. Private healthcare meant I had my initial operation quite quickly, could choose the days I had chemotherapy and the days I was able to use the cold cap (a torture device which freezes your hair follicles!) for chemo sessions during the pandemic, which meant that I kept most of my hair.
I was also able to access a quick assessment with my consultant where I had concerns about other lumps and was able to have reconstruction surgery in January this year. The NHS waitlists for the same surgery were two to three years due to reconstructions being postponed due to COVID-19.
The firm also provides reasonable adjustments and critical illness cover if you are absent for more than six months. Fortunately, I didn't need to use critical illness cover as I could work through most of my chemo, but it was comforting to know that this was in place in case I needed it.
It isn't about being brave or strong
When you're going through something like cancer, it isn't about being brave or strong. Over the past two years, I've heard comments from many people talking about how I am 'brave' and how 'strong' I have been to get through my treatment. It's great that people have been supportive, but it isn't about that when you're going through something like cancer because you don't really have a choice. You simply get on with treatment, no matter how unpleasant, to save your life.
It was difficult not having anyone with me during my treatment and appointments due to COVID-19. Other things I found hard were the three of us in my family having to shield until the end of July and, alongside treatment and working, I was supporting my husband in taking care of our son, Tom, who was just three at the time.
Even though it's been over a year since I got the all-clear, the mental challenge of dealing with the diagnosis doesn't stop. Before my diagnosis, I'd always assumed that cancer was something that happened to other people and that it wouldn't happen to me. Having been through cancer, the fear of it returning is always in the back of my mind, and whilst I am vigilant and try to take care of myself physically, I don't think that fear will ever go away.
Whilst I wanted to continue working when I felt able, that just isn't possible for some people. For me, the side effects of my treatment weren't nice, but I found it much more manageable than some others do (some experience side effects like chronic fatigue, nausea and peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage).
We must consider the impact on mental health
We must consider the impact on mental health when someone faces serious illness, as they may be unable to work due to the stress of the situation. In comparison, others may like to continue to work to keep their mind occupied. Many people find that the more difficult mental health struggles begin when treatment has ended and the security blanket of treatment and hospital visits is gone.
I'm proud to be fundraising for life-saving breast cancer research and care. My team and I plan to hold some internal events in the Forensics team to raise money later in October for Breast Cancer Now's Wear It Pink Day on Friday 22 October.