Colleagues will ask you questions and ask, “Are you OK?”; but sometimes you just don’t want to talk about cancer!

Photography by Leonora Saunders

Olivia

I’m still trying to understand ‘same but different’. That is an interesting concept. Same but different in what way? My career? My ethnicity? The cancer? There are just so many layers you can look at, so many ways to be the same – but different.

Being Chinese is difficult in a way – it’s not just that we are an ethnic minority, but we are also the minority of the minority. In workplaces in Britain you tend to have white and black groupings; sometimes I feel very isolated because I don’t belong to either group. There are fewer peers to get advice from on race issues, we don’t have a Chinese employee network; we’re just sort of in-between – we’re not really white, we’re not really black. We’re just ‘yellow’.

I think it’s naïve to think that racism doesn’t exist. There might not be obvious racism, but there are some underlying issues. Early on in my career, I remember our photocopier broke down and one manager said to me “You’re Chinese, you’re supposed to be technical – you must be good at these things.” How am I supposed to react to that? How am I supposed to feel? I feel I was treated differently because I don’t fall into the stereotypical image of what a lawyer should look like – a middle class, white, posh male. When I used to prosecute in the lower court, the court staff thought I was the interpreter!

With racism or with sexism, people are very subtle. It might not always be that obvious but it still exists. At work there are definitely people who either don’t value my opinion as a woman, or don’t value my opinion because I am Chinese. You read into little gestures and things – people not talking to you, not looking at you when they talk to you or being quite dismissive. Or sometimes in a discussion I feel that when I say something, they just ignore me – but when a male colleague says the same thing five minutes later, they listen to him.

I was born in Hong Kong. I came to the UK when I was about sixteen, so I did my GCSEs and my A levels here. I went to university here and decided I would stay. I’m a Crown Advocate, and I mainly prosecute cases in the Crown Court. On occasions I also advise the police, preparing cases which are to be heard at court. It is a busy and stressful job, because whatever you say in court has consequences that can affect another person’s life, so I need to make sure that I do not make any mistakes. It’s hard; you can’t switch off at night because you’ll be thinking about a case. However, the job satisfaction is immense. I feel I’m doing the right thing.


I had cancer two years ago. I always thought, “I caused myself to have cancer. What have I done wrong?” Part of me wants to blame my work; before I was sick, I was regularly covering courts that involved a four-hour return trip. I remember saying to my employers, “This is really hard. I am exhausted.” But nobody was listening. I think employers could look after us better, listen to their employees when they say, “Look, this is just too much.”

Sometimes I feel that my colleagues are not sure how to handle people with cancer. When I was off sick, I received a letter asking me to come to the office for an ‘attendance management meeting’ – meetings that precede any disciplinary action. It really upset me. At the time of the meeting, I was still signed off by my doctors. I felt I was not being valued. I had worked very hard for the organisation for fourteen years with minimal absence, but I was being treated like somebody who had a cold, or took a Monday off every week. It was just the most horrific thing. The meeting added additional stress whilst I was trying to recover from my cancer operation.

My return to work could have been handled better. I think employers tend to apply the same procedures to everyone, without appreciating individual needs. When I first came back to work I was told to go to the office in central London. Since my illness, I’ve found it difficult to travel by public transport alone and I also get tired very easily. This was explained to my manager but she said she wanted me to go to the office because she wanted me to “talk” to my colleagues. There was no need for me to be there, when my work could have been done at home digitally. I appreciate she wanted me to be back in the work environment, but I was not ready and it did not help with with my rehabilitation.

It felt like their understanding of the whole thing lacked humanity. With cancer, it’s not just the physical side of things that is hard, it’s the psychological side too. I wasn’t really ready when I first went back into the office – to face the people, the questions from others. Colleagues will ask you questions and ask “Are you OK?” but sometimes you just don’t want to talk about cancer! It’s not that you’re ashamed of it, you’re just not really ready – and you want to choose who you talk to about it. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, you’ll be alright” – but they don’t know whether I’ll be alright. Don’t say “I know how you feel” to a cancer patient unless you really do, because it’s such a big scary thing.

Every cancer sufferer or survivor has different problems; the cancer affects us in different ways. Rather than have one policy applied to everybody, it should be more employee-driven – ask us “How can we help?” rather than tell us “I want you to do this.” Simply saying, “Look, I’m here if you want to talk” and being available is the best possible thing, rather than pushing us to talk about it.

I’m tired. I’m very tired. You might be clear of the cancer, but the body is not the same; I do feel much more tired than before. It takes time to heal. I am very ambitious, but I think the cancer has made me feel like I’m behind in my career now. Before, I was ready to do different things, to apply for promotion and all that, but now I feel that the cancer has put me back.

I’m glad I’ve come back to work because I feel work has helped me to get back to normality. I love my job. My employer has actually been accommodating, allowing me to cut down my hours. I attend the cancer care centre Maggie’s on Fridays, which also helps me to cope with the stress. I do have a stressful job and with the thought of cancer on the horizon, being able to attend the centre has kept me sane. They provide very good support and they have return-to-work programmes. It helps me to deal with everyday life.

After my cancer operation we adopted Teddy, a long haired Chihuahua, from Battersea Dogs Home. Teddy proved to be a little therapist himself, he has helped me with my recovery immensely. He helps to relax me when I am travelling on public transport and therefore allows me to travel to Maggie’s on Fridays. He is very popular with the other patients and often gets passed around for cuddles. I am hoping one day we can register him as a PAT (Pets As Therapy) dog, so that he can help others in hospital.

I do worry that people will think that because I work four days, I am just enjoying a long weekend. But it’s not like that at all.

Before I had cancer I thought I understood how hard it is.

Now I look back, I realise I did not understand at all.