Phil Stowe is a husband, father and farmer. He was devastated when his wife Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer “about 14 years ago”, but was inspired by her resilience. At the time, both worked for the iconic company Mars Chocolate, which is based in the regional city of Ballarat. At the same time, they were running a farm and raising three children.
Phil says Australian employers should take heed of how beautifully this employer accommodated their personal crisis. “Their support was nothing short of magnificent,” he says now. “They were so flexible and just said, ‘Do whatever you have to do to get her right’. I know it depends on the industry and the business you are in – small companies might not be in a position to do this. But I think the way they handled it was second to none. We did not need to take leave without pay, or anything like that. It was fantastic to be able to continue working, it changes a patient’s mindset and means you are not wallowing. This company realised that the husband and the family needed to be cared for as well.”
“Anne and I are both now 62 and we had our first date 29 years ago last week. We were both separated and we met at work. Our first date was going to see the movie Crocodile Dundee! We were lucky to end up together.
We had been together for quite a number of years, working and raising our family. Anne had had a few lumps removed from her breasts with no issues whatsoever. Then, she had another removed and we had a call from the surgeon to go and see him. We were informed it was breast cancer.
When you hear that word cancer, your mind plays all sorts of games and you think the worst.
It was a low level one, however it still gives you one hell of a shock. Neither of us did anything, we just sat there like stunned mullets.
The doctor explained the level it was at. He said a 10 was the worst, and Anne’s was about a two and a half.
It was a rollercoaster from that day forward, for a lengthy period of time. Anne was booked in for surgery and she did not need a mastectomy – they just took out a pretty sizeable lump. We called it a ‘chicken fillet’. Then she had radiation for 5 days each week for 6 weeks. Anne would go to work, then leave mid-afternoon for the treatment.
I would take her down from work, I would bring her home and she would rest up.
Anne wanted to continue working and I think it’s really important if you can manage it, because you keep feeling that you are of value and you are needed. Anne did push herself. There were days when she woke up and didn’t feel great but she kept going.
We were lucky - our employer was fantastic. Because a cancer diagnosis can throw your life into turmoil.
I know of another young couple who had to hold a charity auction to pay their out of pocket costs. When you take into account time off work, a partner taking time off work to care and childcare, well there are a lot of people out there in a whole world of pain.
We did not need to ask to have time off for radiation. They just said, ‘you do whatever you need to do to get yourself right’. For me, it was ‘do whatever you need to do to get her to her appointments’.
I was able to schedule things around appointment times and I was able to do significant work from home at all hours of the night. It was about being flexible. Our company did this as well for other people, not just with breast cancer. I had a friend with terminal leukaemia and the support they provided him and his family was fantastic. Employers are always going to have people who try to milk the system, but companies can identify these people and take appropriate action.
Anne continued in her role following treatment, although she took a package a few years ago and now works elsewhere. I retired from Mars Chocolate seven years ago this month. At 56, I decided two full time jobs was a bit much so one had to disappear!
The whole experience reinforced to me Anne’s inner strength and her ability to cope with adversity.
Anne joined the local Dragons Abreast team (breast cancer survivors who paddle in dragon boats). She soon became very involved, and is now a national board member. She often says that it has “literally opened up her world”, because she has taken up opportunities to travel and paddle around Victoria, interstate and overseas. The network of members and supporters provides a very positive outlook and camaraderie for competitions and social activities. They are doing things that some of them may never have done or planned to do.
We were lucky to end up together and now we have had almost 30 exceptionally good years. She has regular check ups with her oncologist and she has had good reports, so that’s good.
But you do always have cancer in the back of your mind. When I heard about Olivia Newton John recently and her second diagnosis, you think ‘is this something that’s going to come back?’ However, I would not say these thoughts consume our lives. We just stay positive and look forward to many more years.”