How to support teachers with cervical cancer

To mark cervical cancer prevention week, Donna Bradbury recounts her journey from diagnosis to remission, with tips to support other teachers through the ordeal

To mark cervical cancer prevention week, Donna Bradbury recounts her journey from diagnosis to remission, with tips to support other teachers through the ordeal

23 Jan 2022, 5:00

In September 2020, amid hope of a ‘return to normal’ in schools as the pandemic’s first wave ebbed, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

I’d never missed a smear, so it came as a shock. My symptoms – abnormal bleeding and discharge – had started in May. I managed to get an online appointment during my dinner break at school thanks to my GP’s use of a new app, and I believe it saved my life.

Multiple inconclusive swabs and ultrasounds later, I was passed on to the hospital. It was there over the summer holidays that my diagnosis was made. A week of MRI, PET scan and blood tests later, I was on the phone to my headteacher.

I remember it vividly. He reassured me that I didn’t have to think about anything to do with school. I said I’d like to start term and await my treatment plan before deciding what to do. He supported me. I said I’d prefer for all the staff to learn my news at once, and he accommodated that too. Come INSET day, I left the hall ‘for a drink’ and he told everyone. Social distancing made the next bit hard. Hugs went begging. But the support steeled me for the next step – my new year 1 class the next day.

Keeping going kept my mind off things. But the truth is I was so fatigued I knew I would have to stop soon. And it happened fast. The following week, I found out my cancer hadn’t spread (stage 2B), but treatment would involve chemotherapy and radiotherapy. My cover was appointed on a Monday, I met them on Wednesday, and Friday was my last day. I didn’t know if I would ever teach again.

I didn’t know if I would ever teach again

I decided from the start to be open and honest with everyone. Another teacher might respond differently, and that’s fine too. What matters is two-fold: first, that they feel heard and supported; and second, that parents know there’s a plan for their children. It makes transition easier, and alleviates feelings of guilt about the impact of absence.

On the other hand, no one wants to feel pressured to return. I was actually grateful for the distraction of work emails throughout my treatment, but this should also be a personal choice. And if that’s what a teacher wants, it isn’t a difficult balance to strike. I was never asked to do any work, I was just kept a part of things. (And the small presents collected by my TA and delivered to my door lifted my spirits immensely!)

By March, I was in remission. I wasn’t due back until September, but I felt I could start in May.

I won’t lie: ‘chemo brain’ had affected my reading and my memory, and all the changes brought by Covid made coming back tough. Never very good at asking for help before, I quickly learned, and my colleagues were great.

But admitting weakness is hard. My recommendation is to ask your returning teacher if they would like help, rather than wait for them to ask you. I still struggle at times. I am going through early menopause due to my treatment, which doesn’t help my memory. A full recovery to pre-cancer days is not a given, but what value a staff member provides is directly related to how valued they feel.  

And time, of course. For appointments (I still have check-ups every three months), and just to get back into the swing of things. Conscious of Covid’s impact on my colleagues, I felt I needed to make up for my absence. My headteacher and colleagues alike protected me from myself when it came to that. Returning after nine months of physical and mental suffering was quite enough, and I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to overdo it (despite my best efforts).

So I’m privileged to be back in my classroom. I have a lot of people to thank for that, and I hope talking about @my_cervical_cancer_journey can help others be as privileged.

(It doesn’t have to apply just to cancer sufferers either.)

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