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Cancer support at Zurich

Working at Zurich following a cancer diagnosis

Our cancer support groups offer a safe environment for anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, or knows somebody who has. On this page, you can find out more about our groups, read Karen’s story, and learn about what employers and staff can do to support affected colleagues.

Karen’s story

Karen works in the operations team at Zurich, based in Whiteley. In 1998 she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer, and 20 years later still works at Zurich with an incurable tumour in her right lung. Here, Karen shares her story, and explains how she has adapted her work life…

Back in 1998, when I was 28 and working in the underwriting team at Zurich Insurance, I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. This was obviously a massive shock, but luckily it was caught quite early and I underwent surgery removing the tumour and one ovary.

I was off work recovering from surgery for six weeks and returned after that feeling fine and excited to be back. But very quickly I started to feel a lot of pain and my manager suggested I go home again. I was then signed off for a further two weeks. This time, I took it more easy, and got back into the usual swing of things.

Five years of scans and blood tests later and I was given the ‘all clear’. I started to feel normal again – it was time to relax and get on with life.

But then in 2010 I felt unwell again and went back in for more scans. At first I thought it was an infection, but they found a tumour from my remaining ovary to my breast bone which had killed one kidney and part of my bowel. I was admitted to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London where I had two big operations to remove the tumour, one kidney, part of my bowel and a full hysterectomy (which at the age of 40 was a big shock). I was told the cancer was successfully removed and, again, felt relief as normal life resumed. I’d been away from work for about four months, and went back to the office in a gradual way as soon as I could. Hey, I had lost weight too – and there’s no harm in showing off!

Confidence and support

I wasn’t expecting things to be exactly as they were before but, after a few days, I was struggling with tiredness and pain and had to slow down a bit. It’s a tricky situation to be in because your mind and professional desire to do a good job has to balance with what your body is telling you. I’d now survived two bouts of cancer and wanted to get back to my job, and not being able to do that had a big impact on my confidence. I had to work out what my own ‘normal’ was going to be, and this threw me.

It’s at this point where the support I got from my manager and team was so important. I was never made to feel that I wasn’t pulling my weight (well, I’d lost some) and always made to feel that I was in charge of how I handled returning to work.

Twelve months passed and, although the cancer was always on my mind, I was back at work full time and doing really well. But then the big shock… it was back and growing again.

I started treatment straight away. The tablets I was prescribed were similar to chemotherapy, but without the hair loss or sickness, though they did cause bone pain and fatigue. I felt about 100 years old! While they didn’t clear the cancer, they did hold it steady for about two years.

It was now 13 years on from my first diagnosis and it was tough. I needed all the help and support I could get – with my health, at home, and of course at work. I didn’t want to stop working because I liked the continuity of work. I like my job and wanted to keep doing it but needed help to continue.

It’s at this point that my manager and I spoke to HR, who allocated me a dedicated person who I could talk to about my disease, treatment and any work issues whenever I needed. This person gave me an outlet, someone to talk to about cancer versus work. They made my time at work much more positive and helped me feel more in control.

More treatment

Then in 2013, another shock - the cancer had started growing again and the treatment became more complicated. Standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy wouldn’t work, and further operations were ruled out as difficult and dangerous.

I was starting to lose my battle to even maintain a sense of my new normal, and had to take time off work. This led to depression – it was a very difficult time. But a glimmer of good news in the form of approved funding for costly Cyberknife treatment gave me a boost (the treatment is a very strong form of radiotherapy which targets the cancer directly rather than radiating the overall area).

I felt saved – and partied hard that day!

I had two weeks of treatment with 45 minutes of radiotherapy each day – at one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. But that meant travelling away from family and home to London, and bearing the costs of travel and accommodation for my husband and me. Obviously, this was all additional stress at an already very difficult time.

The treatment worked, and I set out once again to regain some normality. But this time back at work I found it so much harder to concentrate, and I was encouraged to stop for a while and get some counselling, which I did. Again my manager and HR were a crucial part of the solution, and we agreed that I could work part time (whilst also covered by sick pay).

I wanted to know about death in service benefits and, with relief, learned that this was unaffected by sick pay cover. This allowed me time to rest but also to attend counselling and an external support group. All of this made a huge difference and I began focusing again on that ever-elusive ‘normal’.

More than a year later though, in 2015, the cancer was back – and this time in my right lung. It was incurable. I changed drugs to something even stronger, but then the side effects were worse too. More bone pain and more fatigue.

To this day the treatment is keeping the cancer steady but with five tumours in my lung, issues like depression, pain and fatigue still linger. I have good and bad days but draw a huge amount of strength from family, friends and colleagues. I’m still working part time, and still have the support of my manager, HR and my team.

The power of support

Naturally my life isn’t really normal, I’m less reliable than a healthy person might be; some days I need to be off sick or work from home and I can’t work long hours or travel a lot.  This affects my confidence at work, despite reassurances from my manager and team.

I also have hospital visits every six months in London and I generally find that two weeks before each appointment my sleep and concentration suffer. That is why it is so important to have managers and colleagues around who are understanding and supportive.

For me, I deal with it by keeping busy but others may need to take time off work over this period and that is fine too.  Everyone’s journey is different – there is no right or wrong and ultimately it is OK not to be OK.

In the last couple of years something through my journey made me want to do something else for anyone dealing with the impact of a cancer diagnosis. In a large company like Zurich, others will be working while dealing with cancer in some way, and this inspired me to set up an office support group – somewhere people could be with others going through similar experiences, and share their thoughts and feelings, get information and learn from one another.

Anyone who has to deal with the effects of cancer in their lives is welcome, whether with their own diagnosis or cure, but also to those who may have family or friends with the disease. Our time at work is such an integral part of our lives that it’s important to have support away from our usual network. The cancer support group is always on hand to lend support. Sometimes it’s more involved, and sometimes just a chat.

I’ve talked about being ‘normal’ quite a lot – but over the 20 years since my first diagnosis I’ve learnt that there’s no such thing. You need to find your own normal, but also acknowledge that this will change over time. Let it change, don’t try and fight it. You’ve got enough to fight anyway.

But most importantly, never be afraid to ask for help and support. Every time I have, it’s been there for me by the bucket load.

Where else is support available?

There are a number of information and support hubs for those affected in some way by cancer – both online and in-person. For example, Macmillan provides a dedicated mobile team of highly-qualified professionals who travel across the UK on a fleet of six big green Macmillan buses! For more information, visit their website at

Karen’s manager, Alastair Robertson, shares how he supports Karen in the workplace…

Alastair Robertson

“Karen and I have always had an open and honest relationship when it comes to dealing with her cancer. She always reminds me when she has her check-ups, we usually have a coffee beforehand, she texts me when she’s there and we talk about it when she’s back in the office.

I honestly feel like I’m part of the journey with Karen, which really helps me understand more about the disease, but most importantly it helps me appreciate when she really needs my support. Now she’ll let me know when she’s tired so I’ll tell her to go home and rest. She doesn’t hide anything from me and we have some really great sharing sessions.

So much so that when my mum’s partner was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, Karen was the first person I turned to when I heard the news. She looked after me and gave me some leaflets I could share with my mum, who lives in Scotland. Karen took on the supportive role I try to do for her, turning our relationship on its head and demonstrating once again Karen’s absolute battling qualities and her care and compassion for others.”

Tips and FAQs for employers, colleagues and others…

  • What can employers do to support employees?
    • Firstly, it’s important to recognise the possible impact on your team and on yourself
    • Be flexible with time off for treatment, rest and support time. Show genuine care by providing compassionate leave days for hospital appointments.
    • Provide an in-house cancer support group, run by employees and meeting regularly, where the focus is on mental health and relieving anxiety through talking.
    • Offer a quiet space like a Wellbeing room to read and relax, offering access to supportive information such as leaflets, self-help books, and counselling details.
    • Offer free online courses (available via MacMillan) or bring cancer charities in over lunchtimes for information and one-to-one conversations
    • Offer line manager training on long term sickness
  • What should I say?
    • Allow the employee to talk as long as they need to in a confidential and quiet space
    • Let them cry and show emotion – provide physical comfort
    • Do not offer platitudes as this can make the employee angry
    • Do not talk about work or deadlines; reassure them that any work will be picked up by the team
    • If their family member has cancer, ask them what help they need. Do they need to take time off to act as carer? Do they need their work adjusted to reduce stress?
    • Waiting for results is very stressful making you feel out of control. Understand if your employee can not work due to anxiety/stress. Not one situation fits all
  • Cancer impacts in many ways – how do I know what to do?
    • Let them be your guide. Ask them what you can do to help. Most will be in shock, they may not know straight away so ask at regular intervals.
    • Most cancer sufferers will have numerous issues to deal with on top of cancer –worried family, children, financial issues so bear this in mind. Often the person with Cancer holds up the family and this adds to an already very stressful time.
  • How often and when should I contact a sick employee?

    Ask them, how they would like to be contacted. Some like to be left alone and will contact you if they need anything. Others prefer regular contact which could be phone / emails / texts / visiting them at home.

  • What should I do when the employee can return to work?
    • The employee may be physically well but this is usually when the mental health issues appear
    • Be sensitive to fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, pain, physical changes – this is especially important near hospital check-up times
    • The employee might need to move desks to be near to the toilet, may need a disabled parking space, to change roles for a period of time for stress levels. Consider their travel commitments.
    • Where possible, they may need to work from home, be mindful that this can be isolating and encourage depression. Discuss openly and honestly.
    • For a lot of people the expectation upon returning to work is that everything will be as it was before. Unfortunately for most it isn’t, relationships & personalities can change so understanding and patience is key
    • Most cancer patients returning to work should follow a graduated return to work with consideration for ongoing support periodically.
    • Many employees who return on a graduated return to work basis are referred to rehab consultants. Consultants often get feedback from employees that support was given by their company/team whilst on the graded return but upon returning to 100% capacity, the work piled on and “some forgot to ask me how I was coping”.Returning to work after cancer is a long journey and whilst the employee might feel well a lot of patients suffer from post-traumatic stress and this can impact their ability to work for a long time.
    • With great advancements in treatment there are many people whose cancer treatment is ongoing but can live a near normal life whilst having cancer. In this situation most employees often want to come back to work to help them feel ‘normal’.
    • Some employees with a chronic cancer diagnosis come back to the Rehabilitation team with “Only able to work if 100% fit” which with the cancer diagnosis aside very few individuals fall into the 100% fit category. Therefore it is a bit of a myth that we need to dispel as for many whom feel able, work is normal and really helps them.