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.
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.
- Complete chemo
- Finish surgical procedures
- Stay as healthy as possible
- 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.