‘I heard the diagnosis and thought my life was over’

Being told you have a serious health condition is devastating. But, as these women discovered, it can also be the catalyst for an exciting new future

AS TOLD TO EIMEAR O’HAGAN. PHOTOGRAPHS: LOUISE HAYWOOD-SCHIEFER

‘THE TIREDNESS ARRIVED IN THE BUSIEST YEAR OF MY LIFE

Author Lizzie Pook is 36 and lives in Southwest London with her husband.

As a travel journalist of seven years, my life used to be a blur of long-haul flights and airport transfers. I’d spend three weeks of each month abroad, washing my clothes in hotel sinks and writing articles at 35,000 feet.

I barely had time to take a breath, but I didn’t care. From Ethiopia to the Himalayas, I was out there seeing the world.

But one day in 2018 – one of the busiest years of my career – the tiredness arrived.

It was an all-consuming fatigue. There was pain, too: a heavy throb in my elbows, wrists and knees. My hands and feet were swollen, and it felt like I had shards of broken glass lodged in my ribs. I had brain fog so severe that I struggled to even string a sentence together. I found it hard to work. I began to panic.

Things came to a head a year after the symptoms began, when I was due to leave for Canada on a ten-day assignment. When the train arrived, I couldn’t get on it. I was so tired and in so much pain that I just sobbed on the platform for 45 minutes.

In 2019, after multiple GP and hospital appointments, MRI scans and blood tests, I was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating autoimmune disease. Ankylosing spondylitis is a form of inflammatory arthritis that can take a long time to be correctly diagnosed in women.

Complications can include fused bones, eye problems, inflammatory bowel disease and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

I felt terrified of what the future might look like. The doctors told me I had to slow down (the disease is exacerbated by stress), and I knew that meant I had to step back from a career I’d spent years trying to build.

I was totally unmoored.

Without my job I had no idea who I actually was. At my lowest points – when I couldn’t get out of bed or when I was curled up on my kitchen floor in agony– I was certain that I would never feel successful again.

After several months of struggling to adjust, a long-held dream started to come into focus. I had wanted to write a novel since I was a child, but I was always too busy. I took a flexible job in an office to cover bills and used any free moment I had to write.

It was difficult – the temporary contract meant that when the pandemic hit and I was in the later stages of working on the novel, I was unemployed, unwell and living in my mum’s attic (my husband and I moved back in with her during lockdown). If I failed, I knew I would be left with no financial options. But after a year, I finally had a first draft. Then I secured a literary agent and, ultimately, dream multinational book deals for my debut novel.

When I was diagnosed, I had thought that life would simply always be a little bit worse. But I have since achieved things that I never would have dared to dream of. I work full-time on novel writing now, and I have greater control of my diet, exercise and sleep. I am also financially better off than I ever would have been had I stayed in my old career, although, as an author, you don’t get a salary, so there’s still the worry it could all fizzle out to nothing.

Although I’m still battling with some health issues– my medication severely lowers my immune system – and I’m still getting used to a slower life, I feel grateful for the opportunities that my illness has opened up.

LIZZIE’S TIPS ON MANAGING FATIGUE

Ban the word ‘lazy’ from your vocabulary. You should never feel guilty for resting.

Talk about it Many people are surprised to hear about my condition because I look ‘well’. I find that loved ones appreciate being given a heads-up as to how I’m actually feeling.

Track energy patterns This can help you plan your social calendar or negotiate a flexible schedule at work

Lizzie’s book Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is published by Pan Macmillan, price £14.99*

‘OVERWHELMED BY THE DEMANDS OF THE JOB, I’D WEEP IN THE LOOS’

Niki French, 53, is a dog trainer and lives in Twickenham, Southwest London with her partner and dog Bodie.

Stomping through the park with Bodie at my side, before a day of working with my canine clients, is a world away from my old life.

For 30 years I worked as a director for residential property companies. My days were spent at 7am boardroom meetings, at my desk hunched over a laptop or flying around the world to visit exhibitions.

I loved the job, with its six-figure salary and great pension, but it was exhausting, with long hours and high expectations. I could never switch off. I’d even check emails on holiday. It never crossed my mind to do anything else, though, and I saw myself working there until I retired – hopefully early.

Everything changed one morning in August 2014 when, while cycling to work through Central London, I was knocked off my bike by a car. As I lay on the road, dazed and sore, I had no idea what a watershed moment it would prove to be.

I was told I had suffered minor head and neck injuries, as well as cuts and bruises, but it was only in the weeks and months after the accident that I really began to feel the impact of my injuries.

I began to suffer from short-term memory problems and muddle my words, forgetting people’s names. I had an MRI but wasn’t given a specific diagnosis – I was simply told things may or may not improve over time. I had to have surgery to address pain in both shoulders and had a prolapsed disc in my neck.

My energy plummeted and I’d weep in the loos at work, overwhelmed by the demands I’d once managed without a problem. As my health suffered, so did my performance at work. I realised I was no longer physically or mentally capable of doing my job to the level it demanded, and that was frightening. I had no option but to find an alternative career but– after spending three decades in one industry – I had no idea what else I could do.

The lightbulb moment came in December 2018 when a friend of a friend mentioned she was planning to become a dog trainer. I had always loved animals, especially dogs, but never been able to have one due to my working life. Her comment planted a seed in my mind and the more I researched dog training online, the more I felt sure this was my new career.

Two days later I resigned, walking out of my office for the last time in March 2019.I had savings as a financial safety net and set up a dog walking business to bring in an income and make connections with owners, while I enrolled on an advanced canine behaviour diploma and the Absolute Dogs Pro Dog Trainer course.

Today, I’m a full-time dog trainer with clients who I meet at their homes, and others around the world who I work with online. I’ve learned different skills such as website design and used old ones from my marketing career to attract new business.

I took a huge pay cut when I changed career, but I’ve adapted my lifestyle to fit and it’s been well worth the sacrifice. The pain in my neck and back has eased significantly, my thoughts and memory are less muddled and I sleep deeply, no longer running on adrenaline all the time.

I adopted Bodie in July 2019 from Battersea, fulfilling my lifelong dream of having a dog, and now I can’t imagine life without him. My accident was a scary experience, but it set me on the path to a different future, and I am grateful that something so positive came out of it.

Visit Niki’s site: puptalk.co.uk

NIKI’S TIPS ON SWAPPING CAREER

Don’t be afraid to make a dramatic change The temptation is to do something similar because it feels like the safest option. Be bold and try something new if you think it’s the right job for you.

Have a financial safety net If you’re planning to go self-employed, building up some savings beforehand can take off the pressure and enable you to focus on establishing your new business.

Visit Niki’s site: puptalk.co.uk

‘I HEARD THE WORD “CANCER” AND BROKE DOWN IN TEARS’

Jacqueline Carson, 56, is a clinical hypnotherapist. She’s single with two grown-up children, and lives in Darlington.

I qualified as a social worker in 1997 and worked in child protection, holding a variety of roles, both on the front line (dealing directly with families and neglected, abused children) and in management.

It was an incredibly pressurised job, and often toxic, with parents seeing me as the enemy. The caseloads were huge with mountains of paperwork and never enough staff. I had a strong sense of vocation and knew I was making a difference to the lives of children and families, but it took its toll on me. Working late most evenings, I didn’t get enough sleep. I smoked 30 cigarettes a day and opened a bottle of wine most nights to unwind. I’d snack on convenience food in the car between meetings, and always felt stressed and tired.

In 2014, when I was 48, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. It was a huge shock, and when I heard the word ‘cancer’ I believed I was going to die, breaking down in tears of terror. It speaks volumes about how poor my work-life balance was that my next reaction was: ‘I don’t have time for cancer.’ I’d just started a new role and had no idea how I was going to juggle it with treatment.

I had a fortnight off for a lumpectomy, then went straight back to work, while having daily radiotherapy sessions for a month followed by oral medication. It was gruelling but I didn’t want to let colleagues, and the children I was responsible for, down.

It was having hypnotherapy later that year – prescribed on the NHS to help me cope with the anxiety I’d been suffering since my cancer diagnosis – which helped to change my mindset. It calmed me and helped me think more clearly, and I was able to reflect on how I was living my life. I needed to take better care of myself because if I didn’t, my health would only continue to suffer– and next time I might not get a second chance.

I made the decision to retrain as a clinical hypnotherapist. The effect on me had been profound and I wanted to help others as I’d been helped by it. So, in 2015, I enrolled on a part-time course and qualified the following year, building up a client list in the evenings and weekends outside my social work job. By 2019,I was confident that I could afford to go full time, so I quit my old role. It felt exhilarating and emotional after so many years.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the impact on my business was huge. Out of necessity, I took on some social work projects as a contractor. My stress levels soared, my sleep was interrupted by worry, my body became fatigued– it all served to confirm I’d been right to walk away the year before. As soon as I could, I returned to running my business full time, and immediately felt calmer with more energy.

I mainly work with adults, focusing on hypnosis for health, helping people who want to give up everything from smoking to sugar, overcome phobias and deal with stress. Seeing their lives improve is so rewarding. My own lifestyle is unrecognisable from before my cancer diagnosis. I’m teetotal, don’t smoke, I’m vegan and do yoga and dance classes.

When I reflect on my old job and lifestyle, I feel a deep sense of relief that I stepped away for the sake of my health.

JACQUELINE ON BIG LIFE CHANGES

Take your time and don’t rush into making major decisions First, lay the groundwork for your career swap by gaining relevant qualifications or work experience. Change doesn’t have to happen overnight.

Draw on your own life experiences for inspiration for your new career Find something that you know you’ll find rewarding and meaningful, so that you’ll have the motivation to actually make it happen.

hypnotherapy-darlington.co.uk

READ MORE: ‘The menopause nearly destroyed me’

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STYLIST: SAIREY STEMP. MAKE-UP: NADIRA V PERSAUD USING 35 THOUSAND. HAIR: ALEX SZABO AT CAROL HAYES MANAGEMENT. LIZZIE WEARS: JUMPSUIT, AUTOGRAPH BY M&S. NIKKI WEARS: DRESS, PER UNA AT M&S. NECKLACE, ZARA. BOOTS, LK BENNETT. JACQUELINE WEARS: JACKET, BLOUSE, TROUSERS, ZARA. SANDALS, DUNE LONDON