“You had cancer. You are not fit for work”

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 30, in 2010. I had moved to the UK from Italy in 2005 to do a Master’s at the University of Reading and I was awarded a studentship to start a PhD the following year. When I was about to submit my dissertation, cancer changed my life forever. I went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, one year of biological therapy and was put on hormone therapy for five years. Each 28 days I have an injection and I take a tablet every day. I cannot say that my life has gone back to normal. Cancer is not an experience one can ever forget. In addition, since finishing my PhD in 2012, I have not been in a paid job with the exception of some teaching at Reading. Luckily my husband has a good job, but I feel that the money that British taxpayers have generously invested in my studies is being wasted. And so are my life and aspirations.

A month ago I had to send a letter to a friend of mine. I now live in Brighton. There is a small corner shop based post office in my neighbourhood. I was getting into the shop when I saw a sign on the door reading: “Part-time clerk wanted for the post office. Apply inside”. I posted my letter and asked for an application form. The owner asked me a few questions, including my age and if I have children. He told me that I would need some training, which would be unpaid, and that we would have to send an application to the Post Office for their approval before starting getting paid the minimum wage. We agreed that I would start my training the following day.

On the third day of training I was upset. Nothing to do with the job. My annual scans were arranged for the following week. This is a really stressful time for cancer patients. The state of anxiety preceding and following tests is known as scanxiety. I was feeling really emotional and went into the storage room. The owner followed me asking if anything was wrong. I told him the truth. He reassured me saying that he was sure everything would be fine and suggested that I go home to relax and get back to continue with my training after the scans. I felt relieved. Unfortunately, he was lying or he changed his mind. In a few days, when I was still in hospital, the hiring sign was on the door again.

I phoned him up. He said that because of my diagnosis the Post Office would not accept my application. I replied that this would be illegal. He then said that it was him who did not want a person with cancer to work in his shop. His attitude is quite common. Macmillan has been documenting for years the workplace discrimination cancer patients have to face in the UK. The government does not seem to be interested in taking action. Perhaps it is time for us, the patients, to start making some noise.

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