Work, Life, Breast Cancer Balance

Jeannette Vagnozzi Health Guide
  • From an early age I knew I would be a career woman. I took my time exploring different career paths before settling into a career in public service. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time when I felt like I was hitting my stride professionally. I was only 39. Not only was I faced with critical decisions about my health, I also had to think about my career and livelihood.

    As a single woman and the sole source of income for my household, maintaining my income and benefits were extremely important to me. As a goal-oriented, motivated woman, having a career to resume at some point was also important to me. I had so many career-related questions. Determining answers for them while also working with my doctors to determine my medical course of action was overwhelming.

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    The first questions that came to mind included:

    • Do I have enough sick leave?
    • Would I be able to work during chemo?
    • Would this vulnerability impact my employer’s perception on my ability to perform my duties?
    • If I had to change jobs would I be able to get benefits with this pre-existing condition?  How would this impact my career in the future?

    Some questions require the opinion of your doctor along with your company’s human resources policies.   According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, cancer may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act when the side effects severely limit one or more of a person’s major life activities.  While this determination is made on a case-by-case basis, your job may be protected under anti-discrimination laws while you are receiving  and recovering from cancer treatment.

    Shortly before my treatment began, I remember being at a meeting that was led by a gentleman battling cancer.  Every person at my table mentioned his appearance and commented about whether or not he should be there given his “condition.”  While I silently applauded his strength and determination, I wondered if or when these comments might be directed at me.   I could not dwell on that feeling.  Instead I moved forward focused and determined to beat cancer and keep my career in tact.

    Setting life priorities, much like setting interim career goals, was what helped me manage my career and my treatment. Thinking strategically came second nature to me at work as an administrator for a government agency, but applying the same principles to my life and my breast cancer experience was completely different. I knew the only way I could manage cancer and my career was with a defined strategy.  During the time of diagnosis and active treatment, or what I refer to as phase one. My priority was very clear: survival.  Once I knew my priority, the objectives took shape.

    Phase I


    1. Survival


    1. Complete chemo
    2. Finish surgical procedures
    3. Stay as healthy as possible
    4. Continue to work as long as I am able

    Continuing to work was very important to me.  First, it would allow me to retain sick leave and health care benefits.  This would guarantee I would be able to maintain a certain level of health care.  Secondly, it allowed me to maintain some normalcy and control in my life.  I didn’t want cancer to dictate my life any more than it already appeared to be doing.

  • A recent study by Break Away from Cancer states that 75% of cancer patients felt support from their employers during treatment.  And while most were able to work at least a modified schedule, 13% went on disability.   I was very lucky to have an understanding employer who allowed me to work during chemo.  I was allowed to have a flexible schedule and work as I was able to.  As it turned out, I was able to work the entire time taking sick days only on days I received treatment.  Sure, I was concerned about germs and being susceptible, but I kept a hand sanitizer nearby and tried to stay in my office as much as possible.  While it surprised some co-workers, this practice is not uncommon.  According to the same study by Break Away from Cancer, 47% of cancer patients in their study worked regular hours.

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    In the period following treatment, or phase two, my priorities expanded beyond survival to resuming my life.  My objectives switched from treatment to resuming my life.

    Phase II


    1. Survival
    2. Resume my life


    1. Stay as healthy as possible
    2. Do whatever it takes to prevent a recurrence
    3. Work to maintain benefits and lifestyle
    4. Help others fighting breast cancer

    In that initial period immediately following treatment, my career wasn’t my first priority. I felt it was more important to wake up and watch the sunrise, spend time with people who were significant in my life, and live in the moment rather than think about the next project or deadline.  I continued to work, but I was maintaining my position, not reaching to the next level.  When I was asked what I wanted to do next in my career, I simply stated, “I want to do valuable work.  Sometimes that happens at the office and sometimes I do valuable work outside of the office.”  For the first time in my adult life, I gave value to something other than my career.  Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise (a mean old nasty disguise at that!).

    After about a year recovering from treatment and regaining my strength, I once again evaluated my priorities.  I had believed I could just resume my life as it was, but I was mistaken.  Cancer changes so much; in a sense forces you to reprioritize your life.  While physically I felt stronger, emotionally I felt broken.  My body betrayed me, my faith was challenged, and the fear of recurrence became almost palpable. Instead of resuming my life, I needed to rebuild my life, my sense of self, and my stalled career.  I needed to believe in and look more toward my future, not only the immediacy of survival.

    Phase III


    1. Survival
    2. Rebuild my life


    1. Focus on my overall health and well-being
    2. Find challenges in my work and explore new opportunities
    3. Carry on the fight against cancer

    While sometimes I sway between being joyous and struggling with the fallout of having had breast cancer, staying focused has helped me establish my priorities.  In the past 2.5 years since I finished treatment my priorities have evolved. While survival as well as my career will remain constants in my life, I have grown in compassion and feel it is my duty, as well as my privilege, to reach out to other breast cancer warriors.  Having clear priorities and objectives enables me to more easily make decisions that may impact my life both short and long-term.  Breast cancer may have delayed me a bit, but it certainly hasn’t derailed me.  I’m back on my career track and picking up steam.

  • Resources Relating to Cancer and Your Career

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    Get the facts from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

    Read the latest from Break Away From Breast Cancer

    Fair Employment for Cancer Patients & Survivors (FECAPS)

    Information regarding cancer and your career


Published On: June 05, 2007