Gaps on your CV can be tricky to handle and explain away to employers and mine had a rather long, awkward silence on it thanks to time spent enduring treatment for breast cancer after being diagnosed in 2017.

It wasn’t just cancer that had kept me out of the workplace though; life had been fairly normal until 2016 when the unanticipated career break  from my  IT contract work started.  I went on maternity leave with the intention of returning to work the following year, but then my older daughter became seriously ill with a disabling autoimmune disease and was hospitalised  for a long period of time.  As she recovered and life slowly returned to normal, I started to make tentative plans to look for work and then the cancer diagnosis struck.

When things started to go wrong: life in hospital caring for a disabled child, unaware of the cancer diagnosis which would soon follow

I spent the next year of my life juggling cancer treatment with a young baby and disabled child; we virtually lived in the hospital as I was either there for chemo, my daughter’s physio appointments or being treated for life threatening infections, or having major surgery.  On the days in between, life was kept as normal as possible and I even managed to set up a small business to bring in extra cash and give me some distraction from the cancer treatment.

Rapidly disappearing hair

Once I had completed chemo and undergone surgery, I felt pretty shellshocked; in a 12 month period, I had seen my child diagnosed with a life threatening illness, closely followed by the shock of my own diagnosis.   I felt terrorised by the endless scans, oncology appointments, blood tests, emergency admissions and the uncertainty about my future.   And, as anyone who has had cancer will tell you, life is never really the same again, however good your prognosis is.

The realities of cancer treatment: unexpected emergency admissions, isolation, uncertainly and a whole lot of needles and drugs.  And rubbish wifi.

At the same time though, getting  through cancer treatment did feel like a bit of an achievement; I’ve joked many times about the transferable skills it gave me, but actually it was true.  Chemo can be soul destroying, but it’s an endurance activity of sorts and you have to stay focused on the finish line.  Then there’s the self advocacy in hospital, resilience when out in public (the sad stares, the comments!) and the constant planning required to make it to all the hospital appointments.  Starting up a business at a time when my cognitive skills and energy were severely impaired took some doing too; it wasn’t easy, but it made a huge difference having an identity and purpose beyond being a sick person.

Too fidgety for Netflix: working from my bed

As I started to feel well again, I knew I wanted to return to regular work; I missed the security of a regular income, the company of other adults and the mental challenge of working in IT.  I just wanted ‘me’ back.  It felt like the clock was ticking though; I worried that if the gap on my cv grew any bigger, no one would want to hire me.  Of course, a three year gap isn’t an eternity, but in the technology industry it is significant and I knew I would be competing for jobs with people who didn’t have unsightly cv gaps.

As much as I love art and being creative, I love data just as much.  I used to get the oncologist to print out all my blood results for me to take home as a special treat…

This is where Working With Cancer came in.  They’re a social enterprise helping people with cancer return to work through coaching, training and consultancy.   The team members have all been affected by cancer in some way,  and also have extensive specialist experience in areas such as law, HR, psychology , coaching etc.  After making initial contact I was assigned a coach, Lainey, and had the first of several one hour phone sessions where together we worked out what my career goals were and what I felt capable of achieving.    Although I felt certain that I wanted to work in IT again, I was returning to the workforce with some physical limitations, plus I had two small children and this meant I had to seriously think about what would be realistic going forward.  There may be fewer options available to me than before, so I was just going to have to work harder to find them.

Working With Cancer: one in two people will have a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, many of whom will be of working age

Over the coming months Lainey worked with me to set small goals which helped break down my job hunt into manageable tasks.  My cv was updated, I started a course to refresh my technical knowledge and then tentatively started applying for jobs.  I also started going to local technology events wherever possible, and had tremendous support from my local Girl Geek Dinners group and also from Womens’ Tech Jobs.

The months passed and although I’d had a few interviews, I was still to secure a job offer.  And then I got a call from an agency about a role at Motability Operations, the company which runs the Motability Car and the Powered Wheelchair and Scooter Schemes.  The role they were hiring for in their IT department was a good match for my skills and the commute looked like it might be manageable.  Two interviews followed quickly, leading to a job offer and I finally started work a few weeks later.

I’ve been there for several months now and I’ve settled well into my new working life. The early days were exhausting at times but as the weeks and months have passed, everything has got easier.  I work a four day week which helps massively as I get some downtime and a chance to catch up with home life and look after myself.  I’m enjoying learning new skills, making a contribution and just having a normal life again, earning money and making plans for the future.

What a difference a year makes: new hair and new job!

While I was writing this, I asked my boss for her perspective on hiring me, given my background, and here’s what she had to say:  ‘in essence we hired you because of your experience and your personality came through strongly in the interviews and we were willing to put in place whatever you required in order to get you!’

Here are my tips for anyone in a similar position:

  • Accept it might not happen overnight; it took me many months to secure a job, but it was worth the wait as it was the right one
  • It’s ok to ask for help; I posted on social media and got a ton of useful advice on recommended courses, companies that might be hiring, social events related to my industry etc
  • Go to as many work-related events as possible; for me this meant technology events, some of which were specifically for women.  I found them inspiring and met an awful lot of helpful people.
  • Be realistic about what you can do; I knew wanting to work reduced hours would exclude me from many jobs, but it was important to me that I had this safety net for the sake of my health and sanity
  • Do a course or qualification, even if it’s stuff you already know.  It will at least reassure you that you still know your stuff, and refresh your memory so you can speak more confidently at interviews
  • Every experience is useful, even if it doesn’t have the outcome you want; I interviewed for one job and didn’t get it, but the high competency score I got made me realise I had prepared really well, and it was great interview experience
  • Going back to work after cancer can be exhausting, but it does get easier; I felt a bit overwhelmed by the logistics of childcare, commuting and reacquainting myself with technical stuff, but I just wrote everything down (and I mean EVERYTHING) and gradually my new routine started to get easier.