Hearing the words “you have cancer” is not an enjoyable experience. Whether those words are being said to you or to a loved one, they aren’t something you can prepare for.
My immediate thought after my diagnosis was, “How am I going to _____?” How am I going to be the parent my son needs? How will I continue working? How will I maintain my life?
I was frozen in time trying to turn those questions and doubts into action, not even allowing myself time to process what just happened. But through trial and error, support from others, and sheer willpower, I turned those questions into action.
Here are my thoughts, suggestions, and words of encouragement for you to do the same.
The first thing out of my mouth when my radiologist told me I had breast cancer was, “But I have a 1-year-old!”
Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t discriminate, nor does it care that you have a child. I know that’s hard to hear, but it’s reality. But being diagnosed with cancer while being a parent gives you a unique chance at showing your children what overcoming obstacles looks like.
Here are some words of encouragement from other amazing survivors that helped me when it got and still gets hard:
- “Mama, you’ve got this! Use your child as your motivation to keep fighting!”
- “It’s OK to be vulnerable in front of your child.”
- “Yes, you can ask for help and still be the strongest mama on the planet!”
- “It’s OK to sit in the bathroom and cry. Being a parent is hard, but being a parent with cancer is definitely next level!”
- “Ask your person (whoever you are closest with) to give you one day to yourself each week to do whatever you want to do. It’s not too much to ask!”
- “Don’t worry about the mess. You’ll have many more years to clean!”
- “Your strength will be your child’s inspiration.”
Continuing to work through a cancer diagnosis is a personal choice. Depending on your diagnosis and job, you may not be able to continue working. For me, I’m blessed to work for an amazing company with supportive coworkers and supervisors. Going to work, while sometimes hard, is my escape. It provides a routine, people to talk to, and something to keep my mind and body busy.
Below are my personal tips for making your job work. You should also talk to human resources about your employee rights when it comes to personal illnesses like cancer, and go from there.
- Be honest with your supervisor about how you’re feeling emotionally and physically. Supervisors are only human, and they can’t read your mind. If you aren’t honest, they can’t support you.
- Be transparent with your coworkers, especially those that you work directly with. Perception is reality, so make sure they know what your reality is.
- Set boundaries for what you want others in your company to know about your personal situation, so that you feel comfortable in the office.
- Set realistic goals for yourself, share these with your supervisor, and make them visible to yourself so that you can stay on track. Goals aren’t written in permanent marker, so continue to check in and adjust them as you go (just make sure you communicate any changes to your supervisor).
- Create a calendar that your coworkers can see, so they know when to expect you in the office. You don’t have to have specific details, but be transparent so that people aren’t wondering where you are.
- Be kind to yourself. Your number one priority should always be your health!
Between doctor’s appointments, treatments, work, family, and surgeries, it probably feels like you’re about to lose your mind. (Because life wasn’t already crazy enough, right?)
At one point after my diagnosis and before treatment started, I remember saying to my surgical oncologist, “You realize I have a life, right? Like, couldn’t someone have called me before scheduling my PET scan right during the work meeting I have next week?” Yes, I actually said this to my doctor.
Unfortunately, changes couldn’t be made, and I ended up having to adapt. This has happened a billion times over the last two years. My suggestions for you are the following:
- Get a calendar you’ll use, because you’ll need it. Put everything in it and carry it with you everywhere!
- Become at least a little flexible, but don’t become so flexible that you just roll over and give up your rights. You can still have a life!
It’ll be frustrating, demoralizing, and at times, you’ll want to scream at the top of your lungs, but eventually you’ll be able to regain control over your life. Doctor’s appointments will stop being a daily, weekly, or monthly occurrence, and turn into yearly occurrences. You ultimately have control.
While you won’t always be asked in the beginning, your doctors will eventually start asking and giving you more control over when your appointments and surgeries are scheduled.
Cancer will routinely try to disrupt your life. It’ll make you constantly question how you’re going to live your life. But where there is a will, there is a way. Let it sink in, make a plan, communicate the plan to yourself and the people in your life, and then adjust it as you progress.
Like goals, plans aren’t written in permanent marker, so change them as you need to, and then communicate them. Oh, and put them in your calendar.
You can do this.
Danielle Cooper was diagnosed with stage 3A triple-positive breast cancer in May 2016 at age 27. She’s now 31 and two years out from her diagnosis after undergoing a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, eight rounds of chemotherapy, one year of infusions, and over a month of radiation. Danielle continued working full-time as a project manager throughout all of her treatments, but her true passion is helping others. She will be starting a podcast soon to live out her passion daily. You can follow her post-cancer life on Instagram.