“Nobody ever mentioned ‘cancer’ as an actual risk”

Michel Bloch Buch-Larsen
Deloitte
At the top of her career, Tenna Jørgensen suddenly got melanoma. In this article, she shares her story about how to handle cancer at work and speaking openly to colleagues.

Tenna Jørgensen sits in the consultation room. The doctor had advised her to bring a relative, but she feels confident that nothing is wrong and decided to come alone. The doctor skips the smalltalk. She looks her in the eyes and goes directly to the point:

“We found cancer.”

Tenna is confused. What does this mean? Up until now everyone was so confident that she was fine, including herself. A few months ago, she noticed some small changes in her skin. She had a birthmark under her right shoulder that had started to change size and colour, but the skin specialist and the general practitioner told her not to worry. So she didn’t.

“We believe we got rid of it all when we removed the birthmark. If you do not notice any further changes within the next three months, we consider you cured,” the doctor says.

A nurse hands her a bunch of brochures about cancer and a phone number for a psychologist. Then the consultation is over.

Tenna Jørgensen walks home full of thoughts: she was sick without knowing… and now she is most likely cured? She informs her family about the situation, and then Tenna dials the number to one of her closest colleagues. She needs to tell someone…

At the top of her career
Tenna Jørgensen has worked in Deloitte Audit for 19 years. She started her career in Aarhus in 2000 and moved to the Copenhagen office in 2006. Here, she engaged in projects within the financial sector and became responsible for the audit talent development. In 2017 she decided to embark on a process of becoming a partner. This was a great opportunity – as long as she could still do what she loves the most: make a difference.

“I do not care about hierarchy and the number of stars on my shoulder. I care about making a difference when I go to work, whether it is for a client or in supporting and developing an employee. That is what gives me energy,” says Tenna Jørgensen.

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However, in the fall 2017 Tenna noticed the changes in her skin.

“I thought it looked a bit weird and that I would have to do something about it. I visited my doctor and a skin specialist, and they were positive about the changes, so I never put more serious thoughts into it.”

But an ordinary Tuesday in October, the phone rang.

‘We found cancer’
A doctor from Rigshospitalet called Tenna at work. She told her that she had to get tested for potential melanoma the very next day.

“My first thought was: that is not possible, I have meetings scheduled all day. Then I got scared… It was the first time somebody mentioned ‘cancer’ as an actual risk,” Tenna says.

The birthmark got removed the next day. The hospital would send her the test results a week later.
So, she went to the consultation alone – and received the bad news.

Sharing with colleagues
Tenna Jørgensen clearly remembers the phone call she had with her leader after the consultation.

“I told him the hardcore fact, and he got silent. No words were spoken for a little while, and then we had one of those conversations that you can only have with a close friend.”

Back at the office Tenna Jørgensen had no doubt that she wanted to share the news with her closest leaders. At their weekly meeting she told them about the cancer.

“I cried… and the tears came naturally to me, because I was surrounded by people I trusted. That also made it easy for me to tell them how I felt, and when I would be needing their help.”

It was important for Tenna to inform her colleagues about the process and to match expectations about the work load for the next couple of months.

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“As a leader, I know how crucial it is to have these conversations. It is much easier to provide the support needed, when the leader knows the employees’ status and thoughts. Even the smallest things are worth sharing in such a situation to be able to help each other,” Tenna Jørgensen says and adds:

“That does not mean that every single person at the office need to be told about the process – but the closest colleagues needs to.”

Back on partner track
When Tenna Jørgensen got sick, she decided to put the partner process on hold. After three months of waiting to see if the skin showed any new signs of change, she sat down with her audit leader over lunch to discuss the future.

”We agreed on a plan: if the doctor told me that everything looked fine, I would continue the process of becoming a partner. If not, we would postpone,” Tenna Jørgensen explains.

“This illustrates our including culture in Deloitte. Even though I went through a hard time, there were no limitations: I would not have to wait another year to proceed with the partner process. I got the offer to continue where I left, and it was up to me to decide what I wanted. That meant a lot to me.”

Today, Tenna Jørgensen is partner in Deloitte – but most importantly she is cancer-free.

“It will continue to be a part of my life. As an example, I recently got another birthmark removed, just to be safe. Life is not a bed of roses, but this process reminds me to stay positive the next time I face a challenge – and to speak openly about it.“