Trigger warning: This article contains graphic details of breast cancer symptoms.
More than 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. This October, as the nation marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Ingeus colleague Alison Witts shares her breast cancer journey.
No one welcomes a breast cancer diagnosis at any stage in their lives, least of all just after starting a new job, with a new employer - Ingeus. For 55-year-old Alison Witts, this became a reality in 2021. A reality made less harsh, however, thanks to support from her new employer, Ingeus.
Each year, more than 55,000 people, including almost 400 men, are diagnosed with breast cancer, making it the UK’s most common form of cancer. This October, charities across the UK are raising awareness, and Alison is keen to help their efforts.
Alison, from the Isle of Wight, began her job with Ingeus’s Commissioned Rehabilitative Services (CRS) as an Education, Training and Employment Advisor for the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth in July 2021. Spending most of her former career working in accounts, she was filled with enthusiasm as she embarked on her role, but just four months later she became aware of symptoms.
“I was working from home,” she recalls, “when clear liquid started pouring out of my left breast and I noticed it was hanging much lower than the right one. I got in touch with the doctor straightaway.”
Alison underwent an initial examination by her GP, who prescribed antibiotics and organised a mammogram. Discovering her lymph node was large, she was referred to a breast surgeon who arranged scans and a biopsy which picked nothing up, but being thorough, arranged an MRI in Southampton.
“I’ll never forget the moment I had the results,” Alison recalls. It was 3rd February. My son was with me, and the surgeon called us into his room. He said it wasn’t good news – he was 99% sure I’d got inflammatory breast cancer. And it was already at stage 3C.”
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. Symptoms, as with Alison’s, can develop suddenly, and the breast can become inflamed and swollen. Unlike other types of breast cancers, there may not be a lump.
Alison received her diagnosis just three days after finishing her probationary period at Ingeus.
“I was so worried about telling my line managers – but I really didn’t need to worry on that front,” she recalls. “They were incredibly supportive. They instantly reassured me my job was safe and told me about the company’s three months off initiative, where I could work however best suited me and not worry about anything – it really took the pressure off.”
At such a mentally and physically demanding time, she was grateful for the flexibility the initiative gave her.
She explains, “For three months I worked three or four days a week, taking days off when I was having radiotherapy and chemo, and taking time off after my mastectomy. I was told that I didn’t have to work standard hours, so if working in the middle of the night suited me better, then I could do that.
“I was really keen to carry on working, I needed a sense of normality. If I did eight hours’ work, it was eight hours spent being me rather than being a cancer patient.
“The whole team were super supportive. It felt like I was working for a family rather than a big company, I really felt like they were genuinely concerned about my health.”
Alison, who moved to the Isle of Wight in 2000, was supported throughout her diagnosis and treatment by her son, 30, who she describes as her “rock”.
Currently free from cancer, Alison wears a prosthesis while she waits for an appointment for breast reconstruction. She’s also gained a promotion at work, becoming team leader for Hampshire and Dorset’s CRS Finance, Benefits and Debt team.
She says, “Because of the type of breast cancer, there’s a 60% chance that it will come back in five years and 70% in 10 years. I’m making sure I enjoy life now.
“I’m not one for jumping out of aeroplanes but I’m certainly not going to worry about small things. I’ve gone full blast into work – I’m keen to progress and I want to look back on my career and say I fulfilled my life. It’s not very often that you can say you love your job, but I really wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”