A woman is depicted from the shoulders up, sitting between two environments: her office desk, and the outdoors with a hospital in the distance.

Managing My Cancer and My Career

Being diagnosed at age 28 with stage IV cancer brings so many challenges beyond just fighting this disease. Of course, there is the devastation of hearing “you have cancer”, facing surgery, figuring out a treatment protocol, and generally fighting for your life. But as someone in their twenties, there is an entirely separate yet equally difficult task to face. What do you do about work?

I was climbing the ladder at work before my health declined

Prior to my diagnosis, I was quickly climbing the ladder at my job. I’m an executive assistant and project manager for a large state agency. As the youngest person in my office, coupled with being a woman, I was breaking down many age and gender barriers one after the other. Only 4 months prior, I had co-chaired a multi-million dollar fundraiser, coordinated a conference, and was looking towards a major promotion or enticing upward shift of job duties. All this came to an abrupt halt when my health took a rapid decline, and I found myself in the hospital fighting for my life for a solid two months.

Needing time for treatment and recovery

Now, it may seem crazy that I was even bothered with what to do about working when I was hooked up to multiple IVs and facing a major surgery, but in between consultations I was frantically texting my boss and calling human resources trying to make a plan. I was lucky enough to qualify for a leave plan that would give me nearly 6 months of being fully paid and retaining my job position while working through surgery, recovery, and treatment. This was a huge weight off my shoulders as I was hit with complication after complication as I healed from surgery. This gave me time to determine if I was going to ever be able to return to work.

Heartbroken by the possibility that my hard work would go to waste

For a solid 3 months, my family and medical team were not optimistic that I would have the ability to work full-time again. I was so sick, so weak and our initial treatment plan was going to be quite rigorous. I was too young to retire, so I needed to consider maintaining an income. I also knew my husband could not put me on his health insurance. I was faced with the idea of applying for disability and staying home, and it broke my heart. I felt like all my hard work was going to mean nothing. My education, the projects I had worked on, the connections I had made, everything I had worked for would just go away.

The effect going on disability would have on my income

I actually filled out the application and set a time for my disability interview. I hated every minute of it. Beyond the idea of not working anymore, I was faced with the stark reality that the disability income would be significantly less than my salary. My husband and I wrote out our budget over and over trying to see how we could make this all work. It was going to be incredibly difficult.

I was able to return to work

Thankfully, my health began to return. I was accepted into a trial to start immunotherapy, and my first set of scans showed remarkable improvement of my lymph nodes. 6 months after my diagnosis and surgery, I told my boss I was ready to come back to work. I canceled my disability interview and had my oncologist sign off on my return to work forms.

Balancing bills, appointments, and work

This decision has not been easy. I often wrestle with the idea that if I had taken disability, all of my medical bills would be paid. Instead, we are planning diligently for my annual out-of-pocket maximum and building a savings account for all the “what if” scenarios that can arise from cancer. Conversely, being able to retain my income level has allowed my husband and I to purchase our first home! I’ve had to be creative with my scheduling to manage my monthly appointments and quarterly scans while balancing a 40 hour week. There has been some teleworking and forgoing personal days off to build up the leave necessary to receive treatment. Finding a balance of being professional while also looking after my health has been difficult, but over the last few months has gotten easier.

Proving myself again at work

The new challenge has now begun. Rekindling the professional network I once had and catching up on 6 months of happenings in our department. Even more difficult has been proving myself again. Everyone knows I have cancer. You can’t just disappear for 6 months without letting people know. I have found myself working from the bottom of the ladder again, proving that despite my cancer I can still do everything I once did.

Navigating workplace accommodations

There have been a few accommodations. For instance, I can’t just jump on a long car ride across the state without warning, I have to plan. I have to have my ostomy supplies handy at all times. I have to step out of meetings for restroom breaks to empty my ostomy, and I do not feel comfortable sharing rooms with my teammates on overnight trips. Thanks to a large amount of anesthesia, antibiotics, and stress I also now deal with some very annoying brain fog. I’ve learned to write down everything at work to stay on track.

2 full-time jobs

Balancing my career and my cancer is often like working two full-time jobs. Do I sometimes wonder if I should have gone through with my disability application? All the time. Do I regret making the decision to work while I can? Never. Working full time with cancer is not a choice everyone has. I am incredibly thankful that I am able to work towards once again being the fierce young professional I once was. Having a supportive team around me has most certainly made the transition back a fairly smooth one. Now I find myself in the unique position of reforming my career into what suits my current life. I am taking the time to rethink what my professional goals are, what do I want to accomplish, what do I want to be when I grow up? In the short term, I plan to work as long as my body allows me to. In the long term? We just have to wait and see.

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