Sue Coyne used to live her life as though she were invincible. But after a battle with breast cancer she realised she needed to change the way she approached everything, especially work
Sue Coyne, 60, from Wilmslow, Cheshire, has no shame in admitting that she was once a self-proclaimed workaholic. Like the majority of us, Sue’s days were non-stop. Working as the director of a market research company and raising two young children meant that she often found little to no time to look after her herself. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sue tells Healthista how her illness made her realise there was more to life than work.
Before being diagnosed with breast cancer, Sue would often find herself flying from board meetings in Edinburgh to presentations in London before then travelling home to her family.
But it was a business trip to Brighton that Sue will always remember.
‘I was presenting a paper at a market research industry conference at the Brighton Conference Centre,’ Sue recalls, ‘I had given the paper but I wasn’t feeling right. I felt odd. I was feeling flushed.’
On a normal day, Sue would have been keen to listen to papers and mingle amongst others but instead she chose to go back to her hotel room to shower and relax in bed.
‘Normally in the shower I would be rushing everywhere but that particular day I decided to take my time – that was when I found a lump in my breast.’
Although she was fearful, true to her natural form, Sue didn’t panic, go home or ask for any help, instead she carried on with her day to day life.
I just thought it can’t be, so I carried on and saw the confidence through
‘I just thought it can’t be, so I carried on, saw the confidence through and when I got back home I told my ex-husband. That was when all hell let loose and the conveyor belt of tests started,’ she said.
According to Breast Cancer Now, more than 50,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK and one in eight women in the UK will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime.
‘I didn’t believe that it was going to be possible that I had breast cancer so when I got the results of tests, I was on my own,’ said Sue.
It was at that moment that Sue was told by a consultant that she had stage two breast cancer and would need lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
‘I was in a complete state of shock and I thought, what on Earth is going to happen now? How am I going to deal with this?’
But despite her state, Sue headed straight back to work without telling anyone her news.
‘I was a workaholic, I was a nutcase,’ she admits, ‘I never said no to anything, I put my business and my clients first.
I just never stopped.’
I was a workaholic, I was a nutcase
It was only when Sue was lying in a hospital bed after surgery that she began to think and reflect.
‘At first it’s all a whirlwind. I thought my body had let me down, I thought I was invincible, but really, it was me that had let my body down,’ she explains.
According to Cancer Research UK, it has been suggested that stress can cause cancer, especially breast cancer, as it alters the levels of hormones and affects the immune system.
Fearing that high stress levels would make her ill again, Sue began to slow down with her work load.
‘I absolutely believe that the way I led my life massively contributed to my cancer,’ said Sue.
‘My stress levels were so high there wasn’t any tolerance for a scrap more of stress.’
I absolutely believe that the way I led my life massively contributed to my cancer
But the real turning point came when Sue was undergoing chemotherapy treatment and was accidentally given an overdose which saw her blood count fall and resulted in her being put in an isolation room.
‘I thought I was going to die. Even if I hadn’t thought I was going to die from the breast cancer, I certainly thought I was going to then,’ she said.
It was at that point and thoughts of not being able to live to see her grandchildren that she realised she had to change the way she lived her life.
With help from the Bristol Cancer Centre, now called the Penny Brohn Centre, Sue was able to pinpoint where she was going wrong and what she needed to change.
‘I was asked how much time do I spend on my mind, body and spirit and that was what started me on a journey,’ she explains.
‘The first step was to become aware. I had to connect my head to my body. I had to start recognising my own feelings and listen to my body’s signs.’
‘The next step was to understand that there is something beyond my body and that’s my spirit. So, I started on a journey of exploring, becoming a more integrated collective person and becoming human again.’
Sue also made changes to her diet, cutting out milk, dairy, caffeine and most meats, and started to take time for herself through massages and spiritual healing.
‘Having breast cancer made me realise that I need to put myself first and look after myself so that I can do what I want to do in life,’ she explains.
‘My vision board for the next decade is to have the best decade yet, but for me to be able to do that I have to be healthy.
‘If you haven’t got your health, nothing else matters because you can’t be there for your kids, you can’t be there for your family, you can’t travel, you can’t do your work. You can’t do any of the things you want to do if you don’t put your health first.’
If you haven’t got your health, nothing else matters
ADVICE FROM SUE: How can Healthista women find a balance between being successful but avoiding burnout and workaholism?
Finding the balance between work, home, and a social life is something that takes constant attention, but according to Sue, balance starts with a bigger definition of success.
‘I used to think that success was doing well at work, earning money so that we could have all the material things and lifestyle that we wanted,’ she explains.
‘I now know that that’s not an appropriate definition of success. Success is about being happy in all areas of my life, being healthy, and being a sustainable high performer in my work. The sustainable is key.’
Sue explains that in order to live a happy, healthy life it’s important to know who you are, be tuned in to yourself, love yourself, know what you like and most importantly make yourself the centre of that wider definition of success.
I had lost touch with who I was, I didn’t even know what music I liked
‘I had lost touch with who I was, I didn’t even know what music I liked,’ she said.
‘It’s a constant work in progress, but what I realised through my cancer is keep your loved ones and the ones that matter in your life.
‘It’s your loved ones that are absolutely key and you’re the first loved one.’
4 ways to avoid burnout
Counter-balance is key
There are times in life when we can go out of balance in many directions, whether it be work, relationships or family. When we go out of balance with one aspect we tend to counter balance that by going out of balance with another, so there is a constant re-balancing all the time.
Try not to maintain this perfect balance and instead recognise that sometimes you have to counter balance and create a flow between all the things in your life so that they can all coexist. From time to time one or the other might take a bit more attention, but over a long period they all get their fair share.
The triple H
Many of us believe that the definition of success is based on achieving financial and material objects. In order to prevent ourselves from burning out, we need to find a broader definition of success that also enables us to thrive in all areas of our lives. Sue calls this the Triple H leadership – being happy, healthy and sustainably high performing.
We need to find a broader definition of success that also enables us to thrive in all areas of our lives
Throughout our lives we are taught to not be selfish, but in this case, selfishness can be the key to staying healthy. Prioritise yourself and make time for regualr exercise and things that you love doing, whether it be massages, holidays or Netflix binging on a Friday night.
Identify your energy drainers and energisers
Saying yes to everything that is thrown your way and being over-committed can be extremely draining. Not every email has to be answered immediately and you don’t always have to have back to back meetings.
Write a list of everything you believe is draining your energy and then identify ways you can energise yourself and write those down too.
Possible energisers are taking a break every one to two hours to re-energise, taking a walk, doing some stretching, being mindful, or simply surrounding yourself with positive people.
Buy Sue Coyne, Stop Doing, Start Leading: How to Shift from Doing the Work Yourself to Becoming a Great Leader., £15.99
Find out more about Breast Cancer Awareness Month here