Shifting Perspectives: Lessons after Cancer

Sometimes it takes getting cancer to free your truth.

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The need for human connection was lost on me prior to my cancer diagnosis in 2016. The time required to build additional external relationships didn’t rate a slot on my priority list, which consisted of two non-negotiables: supporting my family and delivering at work. 

Equally dividing my time between priorities required scheduling precision normally reserved for a US Navy watch floor. I lived this military-like discipline with ease, finding comfort in the clear actions and dates articulated within the family plan and the work plan. Shared calendars, labeled events, time-boxed duration – all tools I employed to achieve ‘work-life balance.’ 

However, I’m sorry to say that even with this level of rigor it was difficult to maintain equilibrium, with the pendulum oftentimes swinging towards work. 

When I was feeling indulgent, I added self-care to my list. This care took the form of exercise, image upkeep (think hair, nails, clothes) and maybe, if enough time allowed, my mammograms. 

Photography by Heather Hanson, all rights reserved

Nowhere on ‘the list’ would you find making connections during working hours (too busy executing the agenda), socializing outside of the office (too busy making up for being the absentee mother), nor meeting friends on the weekends (too busy cooking nourishing meals and planning unforgettable family events that nobody ever requested but seemed required in my mind).

Although I rarely hit the mark of epitomizing the ideal woman – one who could “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan” – I kept aiming, believing this was how ‘real women’ got it all done. 

I became my own jailer, imprisoning myself in the comfortable world I inadvertently constructed, one where I was physically absent but my family’s material wants and needs were always met. 

In my tireless quest to be everything to everybody at work and at home, I soon lost sight of my values.

At work I was a leader who believed my team needed to be told exactly what to do and how to do it (no time to instruct). Their creative freedom was not on my agenda, and neither was spending time to learn new techniques when we faced a strict deadline (which was always). Delivery was paramount, and I believed we could succeed only by leveraging means I personally knew to be effective. 

In my tireless quest to be everything to everybody at work and at home, I soon lost sight of my values.

I loved nothing more than getting things done, and I cultivated this execution-oriented, command-and-control style as my personal brand, rooted in my former military experience as a Russian linguist.

I endeavored to put soft edges around this approach, not wanting to lose myself in the toughness I believed necessary to make it as VP of Digital Consumer Experience. It was vital that I not allow my work persona to overtake what I imagined to be my ‘true self:’ a devoted wife and loving mother to triplet teenage daughters.

I told myself, maybe later, if I had time, would I learn more about the people around me, take a coffee, share lunch with others. When I had time I would stop to ask questions, to listen, to learn about the talented individuals on my team and in the workplace. 

Photography by Heather Hanson, all rights reserved

But the thing is, that time never came. 

I operated in an emotional bubble, blind to the fact that I was stifling creativity, perpetuating a belief that not following my way meant certain failure. Undermining my team’s belief in themselves and their capabilities by not giving them room to fail, or succeed, under their own steam. 

You see, my dictatorial actions were motivated by anxiety; an undercurrent of fear my constant companion. Failure (at least to me) meant a quick trip to the unemployment line. As sole family bread winner with a mortgage, car payments, healthcare, and all the extras that come with teenage daughters in 2016, the possibility of losing my income was terrifying. 

So I kept my priority list because it worked for me. 

And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage 2b with ‘lymph node involvement.’ Putting myself last had finally taken its toll, and in the biggest way possible.

You don’t realize the frenetic pace you’re setting, how you’re barely keeping your head above water, until your death is put on the table for immediate consideration.

On that day, October 10, 2016, my entire world stopped and my list went into the garbage.

You don’t realize the frenetic pace you’re setting, how you’re barely keeping your head above water, until your death is put on the table for immediate consideration.

I have been cancer free for nearly three years, and it’s taken two of those years to work up the courage to lay out my story in all its messy, raw humanity. Over the course of 6 months I survived heavy-duty chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and the deaths of my Mother and Grandmother. 

I stepped fully into my cancer journey, managing my disease as the ultimate project to deliver, bringing all of my skills to bear, exploring every conceivable healing path, in dogged pursuit of the right combination of levers to pull that would lead me back to wellness. 

Photography by Heather Hanson, all rights reserved

I began to understand the importance of connection, as I found myself walking around like an open wound, feeling everything and everyone around me. I was now part of an improbable group of travelers, each of us making a unique journey we never expected to take, fighting for our lives. We were curious about each other’s stories, making small talk in the chemo chairs, forging deep but fleeting bonds in the space of a few hours.

I became part of my family again. Instead of the intrusive stranger that popped in every few weeks to disrupt their routine, I sat at the dining table each morning and stared with wonder at their precious faces, listening to their voices, not participating but absorbing, taking in everything I had missed over the years, soaking it up like so much precious fuel to sustain me when I couldn’t get out of bed. 

I was now part of an improbable group of travelers, each of us making a unique journey we never expected to take, fighting for our lives.

I spent more time with my daughters than I ever had, with no travel on the agenda for the first time in years. And although I was sick, bald, tired and possibly dying, I was happier, softer, more real than I had ever been. I was free. 

Needless to say I’m a different person. Nobody takes that journey and stays the same. I look back at the environment I created, the pace I set, and shake my head in wonder at the fear I must have been living in to feel such a need to try and control everything around me. 

Photography by Heather Hanson, all rights reserved

Some might say I’m being too hard on myself. I was not a bully, demeaning, mocking, cruel. 

To that I would say this: You don’t have to be any of those things to imprison others. It’s inherent in not giving them the freedom to make their own choices, not giving them the space to grow, to strengthen trust in their own capability through trying, through failing, through trying again without fear of being made wrong. 

I wasn’t allowing people the space they needed to flourish, although I honestly believed I was doing just that. I just couldn’t see, and I am so grateful I can see now.

If you recognize yourself in these words I invite you to come along with me as I share the lessons I learned embracing the space between ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever-after;’ that uncertain, uncontrollable space where our life story is playing out and if we don’t open our eyes, we’ll miss it. 

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