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Helle was diagnosed with cancer and was open about it in the workplace: “It should not be a taboo”

It was important to Helle Silfwander to tell her colleagues at PFA Bank about her cancer. She wanted to break down the taboo and maintain as normal a life as possible.

30. May 2023
9 min
English / Dansk
16 9 Helle Silfwander
53-year-old Helle Silfwander openly told her colleagues at work about her illness.

One day in January of last year, Helle Silfwander discovered something that would significantly change not just her life but her work life as well.

The 53-year-old assistant at PFA Bank found a cancerous lump in the chest, and the doctors established that the illness had spread to the lymph nodes.

One of the very first things Helle Silfwander did after receiving the sad news was to write an email to her closest colleagues at the bank.

“It was important to me to be open about it,” she explains.

In the email, she described how she would have to undergo surgery in the hope of curing the cancer, just as she emphasised that she would like to be treated in the same way as always.

“I needed to let everybody know that they should just treat me as they usually do. It should not be a taboo. I wanted my life to remain as normal as possible,” she says.

“My experience from being open has only been good. I hope that this may break down the taboo of having cancer or suffering from other serious illnesses. “
- Helle Silfwander, assistant at PFA Bank

Declining a wig

Subsequently, she came forward on PFA's intranet through which her story was shared with the organisation’s approximately 1,500 employees.

And she has received nothing but encouraging responses to both her email and the story on the intranet.

“My experience from being open has only been good. I hope that this may break down the taboo of having cancer or suffering from other serious illnesses. Since about every third person is diagnosed with cancer, some of my colleagues may become affected down the line as well. I am not saying that everybody should necessarily do what I have done. But it has been a good experience for me,” she emphasises.

When Helle Silfwander lost her hair after the second chemotherapy treatment, she also made the decision not to wear a wig.

“I did not feel very comfortable wearing the wig. Losing my hair was not fun at all, but it is what it is. And people did look at me when I walked round the PFA offices with no hair. And that is understandable; I would do that myself,” she says.

And that is exactly why she agreed to tell her story on the intranet.

“I received the nicest messages afterwards. Even from people I did not know. They wrote things like ‘woman on her way', 'feel better soon' and 'thank you for sharing',” explains Helle Silfwander.
She has also cried at work, but she is not ashamed of that.

“There’s nothing to be done about that. And nobody raised an eyebrow,” she says.

Helle’s email to her colleagues

One of the first things Helle Silfwander did after being diagnosed with cancer was to write the following email to her colleagues. She did this because it was crucial to her to be open about her illness.

Dear colleagues

I have been diagnosed with breast cancer, which has unfortunately spread to the lymph nodes.

This means that, on Monday, 14 February, I will undergo breast-conserving surgery and have the lymph nodes under my arm removed.

It is important to me that this process affects my life as little as possible, which means that when I have the energy, I will occasionally work and also come into the office.

It would mean a lot to me if my illness was not considered taboo, and if you would just treat me as you usually do.

I am optimistic and convinced that I will rise to this challenge too and make it through 😊

Consideration showed by employer

At the same time, she is extremely happy and grateful about the way her workplace has handled her illness.

In a dialogue with her manager, a structure was established which allowed her to come and go to the extent she could manage it.

This implied that, during the period she was receiving chemotherapy, she could come by the office when she had the energy. She did not necessarily have to work, but she could have lunch, attend meetings and chat with colleagues.

Once she went into the less harsh radiotherapy, she arranged her days so she could work in the mornings and go straight to the hospital and receive radiotherapy in the afternoon.

Now she is stepping up her working hours to the effect that she works six hours a day.

“I work from 8am to 2pm every day. I refuse to let it be a pretext for doing nothing. Now I want my life back,” Helle Silfwander says.

We did not want Helle to come back quickly. We would rather have her come back in the safest manner possible.“
- Palle Jensen, team manager at PFA Bank

Talked to the manager once a week

Palle Jensen, head of Customer Support and Helle Silfwander's superior at PFA Bank, has throughout the period been guided by 'what Helle needs'.

The two of them spoke once a week during Helle Silfwander's illness.

“It was not to check up on her, but to listen and see how the treatment was going and how she felt mentally,” Palle Jensen explains.

He emphasises that since everybody reacts differently, the process has all along been based on Helle Silfwander's needs.

“My priority was to provide psychological safety for Helle. We have been in constant dialogue about her needs and whether we should increase or decrease activities, etc.”

Palle Jensen has continuously consulted the HR department and his manager with respect to which options were available to him as Helle Silfwander’s superior. 
We did not want Helle to come back quickly. We would rather have her come back in the safest manner possible, and at her own pace,“ he explains.

At the same time, Helle Silfwander's openness has also had a positive impact on the entire team.

“It has made people far less afraid of becoming involved. Every time I talked to her, I asked if I could share how she was with the others, and she always said yes,” explains Palle Jensen.

16 9 Helle Silfwander Og Palle Jensen
Helle Silfwander spoke with her team manager, Palle Jensen, once a week during her illness.

Easier to let go

Right now, Helle Silfwander is cancer-free and has to go for checkup every six months.
“The cancer is gone, but I am, obviously, terrified that is may come back. But that is the way it is,” she says.
The illness has, however, also has brought her good things.

“I feel so much better about myself than I have ever felt. My priorities have changed, and my close relationships are incredibly important to me,” she says, elaborating:

“It has to do with being much better at letting go of things than I was in the past. I do not let things which have nothing to do with me bother me. I sometimes did that before.”

And, in the office, her colleagues have noticed her return.

“They are so happy that I am back. I create a good atmosphere, and I am a major driver at my workplace, so they really notice when I am not there,” concludes Helle Silfwander.

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