Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

3 Lessons I Learned About Managing My Work Life After Surviving Breast Cancer

group of co-workers sitting in a common area, two shaking hands,
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

No one was more excited for me to go back to work than my local dry cleaner. As I heaped multiple pairs of black suit pants along with an array of jackets and blouses onto the counter, she smiled and exclaimed, “You got a job! I was so worried about you. I’d see you walking around the neighborhood, going nowhere, for so long.”

The truth of the matter was, I wasn’t going nowhere. She’d seen me shuffling back and forth to visit my oncologist around the corner. At the age of 32 I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and for a year after that I spent my days heading from my apartment to the doctor’s office for treatment and back. If I wasn’t walking to either destination, I was on my couch, too tired to move, let alone work.

Before my diagnosis there were more than two locations I frequented in Washington, DC, where I’d been living since college. I had a career in marketing and public relations and had just accepted a new job as an account executive at a marketing and communications agency. By the time I gave my notice at my old agency and confirmed a start date at the new one, I got the call from my doctor.

I went ahead and started the new job without knowing the full extent of my diagnosis. In the end, my prognosis was positive, but I needed extensive treatment, including a mastectomy, reconstruction, 12 rounds of chemotherapy, and six weeks of radiation. My new boss was understanding—she’d previously been through breast cancer herself—but I would’ve had to take too much time off that I hadn’t accrued yet; it just didn’t add up. I had no choice but to take unpaid leave and temporarily trade out ROIs for MRIs. I was extremely lucky that my family was able to help keep me afloat while I focused on my health.

About a year after my diagnosis, I found myself cleared of cancer but unemployed. I’d stayed on as a freelancer so I could take on some projects when I felt up to it, but my full-time role had been given to someone else; they couldn’t hold it for me. When my doctor gave the OK to resume my normal life, I wasn't quite sure what that would look like.

It took nine months to find a new gig after I learned there was no job for me at my previous company. Eventually, I went back to my hospitality roots as a marketing and public relations manager for a boutique hotel in DC. I soon realized that finding a job and settling in to do the actual tasks wasn’t necessarily the most challenging piece of the post-cancer puzzle; it was understanding how I’d changed since my last position and figuring out how I wanted that to shape the way I approached my work moving forward. There are a few lessons I learned then that continue to guide me today.

I Needed to Listen to My Body

The two weeks leading up to my first day back were essentially a sports training montage to re-acclimate to a stricter schedule and get ready for work. I started waking up earlier, clocked my new route to the office, and updated my PR contacts.

My mind was ready, but my body was a different story. Three days in, a cold tried to take me down. I wasn’t used to being in an office, sitting for almost eight hours a day in a cube farm with no windows, surrounded by other people and their germs. I woke up congested, my throat raw. Not having accrued any sick days quite yet, I pushed through, living on a DayQuil/NyQuil combo for almost a week.

I’d been so eager to jump back into a routine that I hadn’t taken into account that my body had changed. I’d been through surgery, had toxic chemicals pumped through my body, and gotten a steady dose of radiation—all in the course of a year. While my mind was ready to be challenged again, my body needed more time and I hadn’t honored that.

The first month back at work taught me one of the most valuable lessons that I still carry with me. When your body yells at you to slow down, you have to listen. You can’t ignore it. To this day, I can feel a cold coming from a mile away and I have no shame in taking that sick day or working from home.

I Had to Embrace My Health History, Not Hide It

When you spend a year on the couch your social skills can get a little rusty; at least mine did. Determined not to keep the newbie smell for more than a week, I pushed myself to be friendly, to never say no to an invitation to happy hour or to sit with the cool kids in the employee cafeteria.

But while they all dined on hotel banquet leftovers, I sat with a homemade salad. “Veggies again?” they’d ask. “Why do you eat so healthy all the time?” At first, I just shrugged it off. “No reason,” I’d say. But the truth was that during treatment, I had started seeing a naturopath to help combat some of chemo’s side effects, such as nausea, numbness in hands and feet, mouth sores, body aches, memory loss, and extreme exhaustion. My eating habits completely changed as my food choices became very intentional.

I had been hesitant to reveal my cancer history to my co-workers, unsure of how they would react. I was hoping to avoid the, “Oh you poor thing,” look I’d been getting elsewhere for so long. Until one day someone asked about the scars on my chest and neck where a port-a-cath had been inserted in order to make my chemotherapy easier to administer. As we sat around the lunch table, I told them where I’d been for the past year, and the more I revealed to them about my diagnosis, my treatment, and my unemployment, the more comfortable I began to feel, no longer hiding a secret.

Whether I had wanted to admit it or not, cancer had become a part of who I was. I made a promise to myself that I would no longer hide this experience from co-workers. I hold myself to it and have found that it has made my work relationships more authentic. By opening myself up to others, they, at times, feel comfortable doing the same with me—deepening my relationships with the people I spend the majority of my time with. When I ask them, “How are you doing?” they know that it’s not an empty question, and vice versa. The respect and trust that results from these relationships allows us all to do better work and feel more valued and fulfilled in the process.

I Had to Chill Out

Working in PR and marketing for a hotel means you’re never really unplugged. There’s always an angry guest posting on TripAdvisor or Twitter, a diner raging on OpenTable, or a journalist working on a very tight deadline—and I was managing it all. I obsessed over every review and tried to meet every writer who came into town, which meant that I wasn’t just working 8:30 AM to 5 PM. Sometimes there was also a breakfast at 7:30 AM, drinks at 6:00 PM, and brunch on the weekends. In short, it was nonstop.

There was one weekend when my general manager was asking me about a writer while the same writer was asking me about the general manager as each was unable to locate the other to do the interview I’d set up. I lost it, collapsing into tears on my couch.

After a good cry, I sat up, wiped my eyes, and stared in the mirror. “What are you doing? Why are you so upset?” (After a year of talking to very few people, I had gotten a little too good at talking to myself.) I hadn’t spent so much time and energy getting rid of my cancer just to go into cardiac arrest because of an interview about a hotel. It wasn’t worth the stress that I was putting on myself.

From that point on, I made a conscious effort to put it all into perspective. Was anyone going to die if the website had a typo? If we missed the deadline for a freelancer’s piece on the “10 Best Suites in DC” would the hotel go bankrupt? If the answer was no, then I’d put the thing in a “Do Not Stress” folder in my mind, which is the mantra I’ve now taken with me to every job since my diagnosis. I fought hard to get back in the workforce, so why not stay awhile and enjoy it?

It’s been almost eight years, and I still work in hospitality marketing, a career that I love and one that challenges me creatively every day. All this time later, there’s one thing I still repeat at least once a week to my assistant, to a co-worker, or to myself when something goes wrong: “Relax. This is a hotel, it’s not like we’re curing cancer.”