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Scratching my bald head: How to react to a colleague’s worst news

Scratching my bald head: How to react to a colleague’s worst news

Written by Emily Luscombe, Chief Client Officer

They tell you that following a cancer diagnosis you have a life-affirming moment in which you re-evaluate all that is important and are henceforth compelled to channel all your (diminishing) energy into surviving for that.

For me, that much was true.

But as I plodded around the Surrey Hills wielding two Nordic Walking poles with 24 fellow cancer fighters at varying stages of treatment, I realised that we each have an interpretation of that which is uniquely ours.

For many, the day job that they have long strived for quickly feels redundant (they commit, post-cancer, to retrain/work for a charity/never work again/travel the world/spend all their remaining years in the bosom of their family). Talking to some fellow sufferers, it seems that sickness has almost come as a relief; finally, a really good reason to say “stop”, and reset. This is not going to be my path.

Granted, I’m only a few months into a grueling course of treatment (chemo, then surgery, then radio… it feels endless). So, I fully reserve the right – as does anyone experiencing something as profound as losing your entire head of hair within five days! – to change my mind. But right now, I have never appreciated my career more.

I’ve decided to do something that some will say is brave, others indulgent, or mad. I’m going to try to glean some constructive personal development from this experience. This may, I hope, be of some value to those of us who have the fortune to work in public relations consultancies. Those who, unlike me, may never have the “opportunity” to observe from the “other side” how a business can set itself up to support a colleague at rapidly transitioning levels of capacity over a long year of recovery.

As PR professionals we like to think of ourselves as changemakers, and this year has surely brought change my way; but with that, a new degree of perspective. Because while I have spent over 20 years championing inclusivity, diversity and inspirational leadership in business, only now, finally, do I have a real chance to reflect on what this means from “the inside”.

I don’t want to offend or imply my experiences are like any others’. The best advice I had from my medical consultant was: “This is your cancer, no one else’s.” But I hope that by sharing, I might prompt more reflection as we continue to reform as an industry and make ourselves more attractive to talent on all of life’s pathways.

For this post, I have one learning to share from my lonely side of the fence: do something. Anything.

But do it – don’t dither. React, be human. I have been overwhelmed by the individual acts of kindness I’ve received these past weeks from colleagues old and new, clients, contacts, friends of decades. Many messages start with “I am not sure if I am supposed to be emailing you…” or “I don’t want you to have to think about work but…”

Stop! Maybe I do want to think about work! Maybe it’s a welcome distraction; some much-needed consistency; a chance to feel valued? Ask me! Understand that replies might take a week, and no I’m not up to running a pitch, and some days I won’t want to put the Teams camera on.

And the very best thing that could have been said in response to my diagnosis, with no hesitancy or need to check with HR, is simply this: “We are here for you, and your job is here, as much as you want to do it, working when and how you wish, for as long as you need.”

Emily Luscombe is chief client officer at Instinctif Partners

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