‘I didn’t know if I was going to survive’: Bastion’s Jacqueline Archer on navigating cancer in the workplace

Last year, Jacqueline Archer's life was turned upside down when she was unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer on the precipice of starting her new role as managing director of Bastion Make. This month, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Archer sat down with Mumbrella's Kalila Welch to share her story.

It was during those blissful few weeks of serenity between finishing one job and starting another that Jacqueline Archer was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Light-hearted advice from a girlfriend, while on holidays in the sunshine state, had been the ultimate catalyst that lead her to visit the doctors for a checkup. Unconcerned, she had waited two weeks before booking her appointment.

“I went in to check it out, just this casual thing, and that’s when my doctor went ‘you need to go to St Vincent’s right now’,” Archer explains.

Prior to her diagnosis, Archer had accepted a new role heading up at the production division at Jack Watt’s independent agency Bastion, charged with restructuring then Bastion Films into full-service production agency Bastion Make. She describes the timing of her diagnosis as “horrifying”.

“When I found out, it was really hard, because I called my new employer and kind of said to him, ‘well should we just shake hands? You know, call a day?’ Because I hadn’t started.”

It was the prospect of starting at a new company, where she had not had years to establish herself as a company asset, nor accrued sick leave, that left Archer reluctant to take on the role, fearful of placing herself in an unrepayable debt.

“What’s really hard is, I didn’t know if I was going to survive,” she shares, explaining that at the time of diagnosis she was advised by doctors that she would have a 30-40% chance of survival.

“It was a really, really hard time, because even though it was my dream to run a production business – work didn’t mean anything anymore. I was given a death sentence, really.”

According to Archer, following her call with Watts, he sent her an email of support that she describes as ‘beautiful’. His message reassured Archer that her health was his top priority, “I’m here for the long game, Jackie”. He made it clear that he would gladly support her through whatever came next.

Despite the next few months of treatments that loomed ahead of her, Archer decide to move ahead with the new role, crediting her work as “a really good distraction” from her diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

The next few months would see Archer undergo chemo treatment and a double mastectomy during the throes of Sydney’s near four month COVID-19 lockdown in 2021, facing the same isolation as the rest of the city at the same time as she was enduring the loneliness of a cancer diagnosis.

Archer with her Chemo at Home nurse, Kerrie, during an agency All Staffer meeting.

“I often ask myself why I was so public about this,” she says, referring to how vocal she had been about her experience on social media

“On reflection it was a historic time with COVID and the lockdown. We were all in a five kilometre lockdown and I’m not married and I have no children. So I was in my apartment, on my own, with my hair falling out from chemo, facing my mortality. I couldn’t go to chemo therapy in St. Vincent’s anymore, since they were worried I was gonna get COVID because I was immunocompromised.”

“I ended up doing chemo at home. My doctor sent the nurses to my place, and finally my aging mother moved in to keep me afloat as the loneliness was eating me up,” she shares candidly.

“So, my point was, I was really isolated, really isolated, which really did affect my mental health. Social Media was my lifeline. My work also kept me sane.”

Archer’s ‘Friday’ wig personality, who she says is “a bit of a risktaker and a hoot”

Despite the psychological and physical impacts of her treatment, Archer kept her sense of humour, laughing as she recalls the patience of her team as they took directions from a “really weird chemo woman on teams trying to lead them”.

“What I probably didn’t give enough credence to is how people were reacting on the calls. I would take Microsoft Teams calls with no hair. On some of my WIP meetings I would have my nurse next me, with chemotherapy drugs being pumped into my veins through a drip beside me,’ she says. “That’s how I was taking my meetings online.  So I tried to lighten the mood. I had something like 20 wigs that I gave names to, turning them into personalities to lift my spirit, and my team’s spirit.”

Archer’s ‘Fantasia’ wig personality, who she describes as ‘”light and bubbly, but kind”

She also acknowledges the privilege she experienced in being able to take a couple of months off work after her double mastectomy, thanks to the financial support of her friends and family. While she underwent some of her treatments, she returned to work three to four days a week for the remainder of her chemotherapy.

“There’s people who are living with cancer and working and don’t have the luxury of stopping work, they have to keep going to feed the kids and pay the mortgage. I was incredibly lucky.  Not everyone has that luxury.  They could be the bread winners so they just can’t slow down work,” she says. “There needs to be more done to support these people.”

Recognising the prevalence of cancer in our industry

While cancer is for many, a terrifying, but abstract concept that affects only the elderly or vulnerable, Archer emphasises that the disease is far more prevalent than people may realise.

“It’s sadly really common, cancer,” she starts, “and I think there are a lot of people in the workplace that have cancer who aren’t as public about it as I am – whether it’s fear of losing their jobs or being judged on their performance because of it.”

Since her own diagnosis, Archer has become aware of at least four others just at her own agency and another eight friends under 50 that have experienced a form of cancer diagnosis in the past 12 to 18 months. Four with stage four cancer.

Nationally speaking, data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare tells us that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the age of 85, with data projections estimating 20,428 diagnosed cases of breast cancer in 2022, including 20,428 females and 212 males. In the same year, it is estimated that 3,214 people will die from breast cancer.

While a five year study conducted from 2013 to 2018 found that those diagnosed with breast cancer had a 92% chance of surviving beyond five years, it is the significant physical and psychological traumas experienced by cancer patients during and after their treatment that Archer says often go under the radar.

“When the doctor came told me “you are cancer free”, you would think that I would be like, “woo hoo!”,” says Archer. “When no, I went into shock. I finally could process what had just happened and what I’ve been through. I was on a merry-go-round of doctors, and drugs, and quick lifesaving decisions with no time to process any of it.”

“When I was declared cancer free, I spiralled and suffered from PTSD.  I went crashing down and calling Lifeline. The irony, because [before] I was fighting for my life”

“A counsellor said to me “You’ve just come through a health war, it’s completely normal and you might have survivor’s guilt,” she explains, reflecting on the loss of her Aunt and two former colleagues who had both died of cancer during the time that she was in treatment.

“Both of my former colleagues reached out. One in particular never told me how serious her illness was, probably to protect me,” she says. “We talked daily. She was my cancer buddy. I sent her a gift in hospital, which she said was nothing serious, and a few days later she had slipped away.  It was devastating.”

Archer is not alone in her experience, with the National Breast Cancer Foundation drawing awareness to a wide range of psychological impacts experienced by breast cancer survivors in the aftermath of their treatment, including anxiety, shock and depression, body image and intimacy concerns. The organisation has funded research conducted by Curtin University associate professor Georgia Halkett into developing programs that help those who have experienced breast cancer to continue, or return, to work.

How the industry can best support colleagues who are going through a cancer diagnosis

In the time since her diagnosis, Archer has successfully overseen the transformation and rebranding of Bastion Films to Bastion Make, a more than 30 person strong production agency with 360-degree production capabilities, with in-house craft experts with deep expertise in motion, digital, studio and print – a feat impressive for any person, but particularly for someone who has spent much of the last year facing their mortality.

Despite being so open about her diagnosis with her new team, and often seeing the humour in her situation, Archer is firm on the fact that she doesn’t want to “put that pressure on anyone else to perform in that way”.

During the lockdown, Archer could not see a hairdresser, so she used a Gilette shaver in her top drawer to shave her head when all her hair fell out in clumps – a chemotherapy side effect.

For many, Archer recognises that cancer is something that they may wish to keep more private. However, she urges her industry colleagues to drop the stigma around the ‘C word’, and to check in with their colleagues, even if they don’t know what to say.

“There’s a lot of fear about cancer and I think there’s a lot of fear about talking about it,” she says. “I think support is crucial even if that person is not willing to open up.”

Asking the simple questions of “how can I help?”, is the best way to start, says Archer. Talking to her own experience trying to keep on top of her messages during her treatment, she adds that it is important not to take it personally if you don’t get a response.

“I think that would be my advice: don’t be afraid to reach out and support somebody. You’ll never say something stupid.  Don’t be shy about it. I loved even the most awkward texts of support – they tried,” she advises.

“If your colleague doesn’t respond, it’s okay. They are facing mortality, they’re facing life or death, they have a lot going on with hundreds of medical appointments, family and financial commitments – it’s overwhelming. They’re not going to hate you, or feel like you’re invading their privacy. In fact, I truly believe they’ll look back on your support with great fondness, even if they never responded to you.”

Archer reinforces that the moment a person is medically cancer free, it’s not the end of their journey – not even close.

“Don’t forget the aftermath,” she urges. “I think it’ll take years for me to get over this, to be honest. Not just physically, mentally.”

Currently a month out from her breast reconstruction surgery in November, she adds that this is not yet the last stage of her recovery.

“After I was diagnosed as cancer Free, I still had to do radiation therapy. Just in case. I now have reconstruction in November, and I have got another operation after this one 6 months later. The cancer fight is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”

“It’s also a very expensive fight,” Archer reflects. “The out-of-pocket financial expenses for cancer will blow your mind. It’s not all on Medicare.”

“I hope that I can share my story during Breast Cancer Month to spread awareness. Go get checked. Even if you don’t have signs. The sting of a mammogram versus 6 months of chemotherapy is a walk in the park. I wish I had gone in immediately. My cancer was so aggressive it grew to a golf ball size in less than two months.  If I caught it in the first month I could have avoided a lot of pain and anguish.”

Lastly, Archer had these final thoughts: “Cancer is not a death sentence. You can survive. Your colleague can survive. We should think about how to embrace more support in the workplace to help people with cancer and those battling it. It’s more common that we wish to think. It could happen to you,” Archer states, “Get checked.”


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