Three Things to Consider When Continuing to Work With Metastatic Breast Cancer

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A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer unleashes a flood of important decisions. If you’ve made the choice to continue working, there can be many powerful and positive lessons on your horizon.

About a year ago, I received this diagnosis after a 17-year remission. The news arrived in the middle of a work day. I was sitting in my car to have a private conversation with my doctor, to receive results from a scan, when she said, “There are some spots in your ribs.”

Talk about decisions around working — my first decision was whether to return to work or go home for a good cry. After scheduling doctor appointments for the next week, I chose to wrap up my worries in an imaginary box and leave them in my car. I returned to the office where I was consulting about a highly contentious decision, about whether or not to dismiss the organization’s leader, and carried on with two remaining meetings.

The diagnosis, only minutes old, emboldened me to speak my truth that day in a way I might not have done before. As a result, the leader submitted his resignation a few days later rather than putting the organization through the drama that would have otherwise ensued. I felt proud that I had completed my work that day, proud that I had spoken the truth as I saw it, and even prouder that my work contributed to an outcome that I knew would enrich the organization.

That moment was the start of my many lessons from working while living with metastatic breast cancer. I’m fortunate to be self-employed, though I worked through my initial breast cancer treatment (surgery, chemo, and radiation) back in 2001 in a demanding role as a public school principal. Working through that earlier treatment set the stage for the lessons to come this time around. Thankfully, I had learned a thing or two.

Three key questions arose from my experience, which I share below with the hope that they will inspire your own self-discovery as you continue to work.

What doesn’t spark joy?

No job is perfect. Our jobs inherently come with detested chores we shuffle to the bottom of our to-do lists. And what about our coworkers and clients? Some bring joyful connection, inspiring conversations, and great satisfaction, while others can be emotionally draining.

I’d like to suggest, as an adaptation of Marie Kondo’s advice, you notice what doesn’t spark joy. Get in touch with these unsavory tasks and challenging people. What leaves you tense, distracted, or depleted? Keep a three-column list so you can hold onto your insights. Label the columns like this:

  • Tasks/People that Deplete Me
  • Tasks/People that Are OK
  • Tasks/People that Energize Me

After gathering these thoughts for a week or so, look over the lists and see what emerges. Just like you’d clean out a closet, it’s time to make some choices about what stays in your work life and what you can just let go.

While you probably can’t delegate all distasteful tasks or ignore all the challenging people, you may have more possibilities than you imagine. What better time than today to see what you can move off your plate so you can find more joy and experience less stress in each workday?

This will likely require honest conversations and skillful delegation. Maybe there’s a committee that’s weighing you down or perhaps a customer who consistently pushes your buttons. You may have been brushing aside these issues for awhile. Truly consider how much calmer and happier your work life will be when you figure out how to discard what doesn’t spark joy.

By gaining clarity about what’s weighing you down, you’ll be better able to fill your work days with as much good as possible. Imagine work that leaves you feeling energized, hopeful, and happy. It is within your reach.

Why does your work matter?

You know those days at work when everything seems to be functioning and frazzle-free? You’re on your game and so are the people around you. You go home inspired, feeling successful. You know you’re making a difference.

These are the days that make me feel that I’ve made a contribution to others, to my community, or to the world — that I’m here on this earth for a reason. Right now my reason is to spread my message about how to live with less stress. I was nearing the end of writing my second book, focused on this message, when I got my metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Talk about stress — I surely could have freaked out, become depressed, or asked “why me?” But no, I was a writer on a mission. It mattered to me that I spread my message. I didn’t waiver for one second about finishing my book. It was published 9 months after the diagnosis (with 24 chemo treatments behind me).

I’m suggesting that now is the time to be crystal clear and embrace what matters about your job. Having this clarity can fuel your work days with a sense of importance. What contribution are you making to yourself and others? Maybe you want to spread happiness to your customers, brighten the day of a child, or help someone find the house of their dreams. Your work can be a daily reminder that your life matters.

How is your work a healthy distraction?

All of us who are living with metastatic breast cancer have a range of side effects. Some can be truly uncomfortable and make life a challenge, while others are merely irritating. With each chemo treatment the neuropathy in my fingers and feet has intensified. Some days I need to stick with earrings with no backs, necklaces with no clasps, and tops with no buttons.

But here’s where I was stunned: when I’m coaching a client or giving a presentation, I feel great. I have no awareness of numbness or discomfort. I am so engrossed in my work that it’s as if my symptoms have vanished.

Helping others takes me away from my troubles, both mentally and physically. I’m completely focused on my clients’ needs — and completely distracted from mine. What a gift it is to have immersive and important work with its own side effect of minimizing my side effects!

So, why not try asking yourself these three questions. Your answers will guide you to eliminate work that doesn't spark joy, to get crystal clear about why your work matters, and to use work as a healthy distraction. With these answers I hope you’ll find that continuing to work during your treatment can be a source of unexpected personal growth and gifts.

Written by: Jamie Sussel Turner, M.Ed., PCC

Jamie Sussel Turner

Jamie Sussel Turner is a professional coach, speaker, former school principal, and award-winning author. Her second book, Less Stress Life, is available on Amazon. Jamie lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore where lessons from three cancer diagnoses led to her more peaceful life.

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