Beating breast cancer taught Nicky Palamarczuk that we need to talk more openly about the things we usually avoid discussing.
Nicky Palamarczuk, Head of Social & Influence, VCCP
“I felt something wasn’t right in my body, but I thought it was just a hangover from breast feeding so went to the doctor feeling a bit stupid. I was 38. No-one gets breast cancer at 38, right?”
Nicky Palamarczuk had only been back from maternity leave for a few months and was settling back into her role as Head of Social & Influence at marketing agency VCCP. She took her one-year-old daughter with her to the doctor’s.
“As he was examining me, she was just staring at him like, ‘What are you doing with my mummy?’ It made her quite jealous, and that also made me feel quite stupid. I just kept thinking: ‘What am I doing here? This is mad.’”
He assured Nicky he thought it was nothing, but booked her in for a follow-up regardless.
It was a hot July day in London when Nicky arrived for her follow-up consultation, and she was still convinced she’d make her midday meeting. When she arrived, her consultant told her: “This is probably not breast cancer, you’re too young. This is probably a blocked milk duct. Just to be on the safe side, we’ll do an ultrasound.”
After an initial round of tests, the consultant sent her for a mammogram and started taking biopsies.
“At that point, I felt like something was wrong. I was lying on an examining table, with the consultant leaning over me and I said: ‘You don’t think this is good news, do you?’”
After being advised to call her husband, Nicky was led to a waiting room where she sat, sobbing intermittently for two hours before her diagnosis was confirmed. Breast cancer.
“That’s when my world fell apart. You’re not meant to get cancer at 38 when you’ve got a young baby.”
Within two weeks, using the private healthcare provided by her work, Nicky was back in the hospital, having a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“I would go to read my daughter a bedtime story and all of sudden the words would stick in my throat and I wouldn’t be able to finish it. All I could think was: ‘What if I’m not here this time next year to read to her?’ The enormity of the situation I was in was at its most overwhelming at the quietest, most tender times with my daughter.”
After a successful surgery, Nicky started on a three-week course of radiotherapy and ended up taking about six months off from work.
“The psychological impact of going into my morning radiotherapy appointments every day with commuters was quite taxing. I ended up retail-therapising my way through my radiotherapy.”
Much of Nicky’s treatment took place close to Regent’s Park so she’d often find herself walking through the park, taking time to sit in the rose garden to process what was happening.
“I remember sitting on a bench and thinking, ‘So many people go through this stuff, it isn’t just me you know. People go through all sorts and have to go back to their work and their life.’ It got me thinking – my own work had been so incredible to me, but it feels like there’s no blueprint for this experience. No way of doing it. We should talk about this stuff.”
A year and a half later, she started to change that.
Nicky launched “Back to Work After,” a series of intimate panel discussions in which speakers share their personal experience of returning to work after traumatic events. The first was entitled “Back to Work After Illness.” About 50 people joined her at a West End hotel – the audience was mostly her co-workers, friends and family, along with the friends and family of three other speakers who shared how cancer changed their lives.
“It was an amazing night. I just sat there watching all of my speakers being incredible on stage. Being real and raw, which is what I’d asked them to be, because I knew for this to work, they’d have to go to a place that might be a bit painful.”
“Afterwards, lots of people came up to me and told me it was amazing and that they’d cried. I had people saying, ‘Please do divorce’ and suggesting other topics. A woman came up to me and said, ‘You have to do miscarriage, and I’ll be one of your speakers. I’ve never told anyone that I had one.’”
That woman was Katie Lee, CEO of advertising agency Lucky Generals, who spoke at the next edition of the series: “Back to Work After Miscarriage.” Articulating her experience that night led her to write a new policy for her company on miscarriage.
For Nicky, the events have gone from a fleeting thought in a rose garden to something much bigger. She tapped into a hunger to gather and openly discuss topics that have long been considered taboo in the workplace – and acknowledge how these experiences impact us in different ways.
“I think the whole event, for everyone involved, is very cathartic and empowering. I want it to be a forum where people can come and be honest and vulnerable.”
As we speak, she’s preparing her third event: “Back to Work After Addiction.”
For Nicky, opening up is how she copes. It’s the way she wrestles control back from what happened to her and come to terms with it. But, she recognises, that’s not something that comes naturally to everyone.
“If someone can come away from one of the events feeling stronger, or braver, or that they can ask for more or be more open, that for me is the biggest win.”
NICKY PALAMARCZUK’S ADVICE FOR RETURNING TO WORK AFTER A LIFE-CHANGING EVENT
Lean in, ask for what you want
Be clear on what you can and can’t do. You’ll be really surprised what your company can and can’t do in terms of supporting you. You being your best self is in their interest.
Take time for yourself
I take time for myself in a way I never used to. If I’ve put all the hours in, I’m not going to stay at my desk until 5pm if I’m not busy that week.
Someone said to me recently: ‘You only live once, but you also live every day’ so I try and live my best life each day but it’s so exhausting! Take time to find balance.
The best thing I did was say: ‘I’ve got cancer. It’s really s--t right now.’ Acknowledging it for yourself, and then finding people that will also do that for you in the organisation you work in. If you can’t find that, then maybe it’s time to change your job, because the organisation should be there to support you.
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