WARNING: Long, honest and personal post ahead. If you are offended by f-bombs and some ranting, followed by (hopefully) an inspirational message, stop reading now and pull up some videos of puppies.
DISCLAIMER: This is a personal blog post. All views and opinions represented in this post are personal and belong solely to me and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that I may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity.
I have cancer.
After a routine mammogram in January, followed by a series of diagnostic tests in early February, it was confirmed that I have Stage 1b invasive ductile carcinoma: breast cancer. I had surgery in April. And started chemotherapy on July 5th (the day I declared independence from cancer). Really, my oncologist and medical team wanted me to start in June, but I had SHRM19 to attend, and I wasn’t about to change my life’s plans.
Want to know why?
Fuck cancer. That’s why.
Since February, only a few people have been made aware of my situation. I have chosen not to be public until now for a variety of reasons. I am not ashamed of it. I am not embarrassed by it. My lack of sharing is in part driven by the fact that most people, when you say you have cancer, change they way they treat you. I think that is mostly the result of not knowing what to say, or maybe the fear of saying something “wrong.” Usually what happens is they become uber-careful, compassionate, concerned, empathetic, etc. The funny thing is, I don’t want that. I don’t want that response so strongly that I’d rather avoid the conversation altogether – more for other people and less for me.
SHRM19 was a pivotal time for me. I had no idea how I would respond to treatment, and thus the reason to postpone until I returned home. Heading out to Vegas was a reminder to me to eek out every ounce of goodness. Savor every interaction. Share words of encouragement for others going through tough stuff. Hug everyone who would let me. Smile and laugh so much that that would be what people remembered about me.
Not only was I asked to be a #SHRM19Blogger (which is truly a special honor), but so did a few members of the #StatelineCrew, which made the experience even more fun. We took this photo together:
This photo was an expression of community and friendship which grew from a simple invitation to connect in a more meaningful way following SHRM18 in Chicago. Since that time, this picture has become a symbol of solidarity. Two of us pictured here are battling cancer. Boo.
Cancer doesn’t define me. It isn’t who I am. It isn’t what I am. It’s something that I have to live with (for now), and deal with (now) so that (hopefully) I don’t have to deal with it at all in the (near) future. Truth be told: Cancer is scary as hell.
Everyone has their shit to deal with. Every single one of us has hardships - finances, marriage, kids, friends or other relationships, employment, school, health, physical, mental, emotional, philosophical, etc. Everyone has a story. This just happens to be my mine. No better, no worse than anyone else’s.
Most people have no idea that I’ve been dealing with this for the last 6 months. I’ve reported to work every day – missing only for the various (and numerous) appointments. When I chopped my hair a few months ago, most people have no clue that I did that to prepare for chemo, and the likelihood that I would lose my hair, and that was a small attempt at making it less traumatic.
I chopped it again last Saturday as a result of chemo-related hair loss. I do have some hair… I’m kind of rockin’ an 80’s combover, which, frankly, I find hysterical. Assuming the hair loss continues, next step is a shaved head. No wig. No head scarves. No hats.
When I tweeted about fear and courage months ago, most people have no idea that those tweets were borne from the cancer diagnosis, and my resolve to kick its ass. After all, I’m a mom of two young children, and as far as I’m concerned, there is one acceptable outcome. My father was 44 when he passed from cancer. I was 8 years old. I’m 46 now. My kids are 12 and 9. I know what it was like watching my father wither away. I was with him when he took his last breath. I know what it feels like to hear my friends talk about their dad and the fun things they would do together, watching them take photos with their dad before prom, at graduation, walking down the aisle at their wedding, when I sat there silently just wishing I had one more moment with mine. I have resolved that my children won’t experience that. Growing up without a mom isn’t an option for them.
The primary reason I haven’t shared until now is because I didn’t want my situation to be a distraction. The irony is that I work for a company in the biotech industry – specifically early cancer detection. So why wouldn’t I want to be more open about it? See prior statement.
I have learned a few things over the last several months.
I have always come at life through the lens of gratitude, joy, happiness and courage. Even when the shit hits the fan, I look for the positive. I’m not one to wallow in misery, or curl up in a ball in the corner, retreat from life, and become a victim of my circumstances. There is not a damn bit of good that comes from that. When you hear the words “you have cancer,” that’s not an easy task. I have viewed my life as a training ground. Every single experience is preparation for something greater. The good. The bad. The horrific. The ecstatic. Life’s experiences teach you (if you’re paying attention) how to respond better each time.
Years ago, when my husband and I were “family planning,” I had a miscarriage. It was devastating. As we were mourning, my husband said to me, “People are watching how you respond….” This was so powerful to me because it was a reminder that the way we respond to life has an impact on others. I am always mindful of what kind of impact I want to have: I want to be a source of inspiration, encouragement and support. Sometimes the way people respond have exactly the opposite effect.
“To everything there is a season….” (turn, turn, turn…)
Listen. There is a time to mourn. A time to be sad. A time to be scared. A time to be so pissed off you want to scream and punch someone in the throat.
A time. A season.
The point is that it’s ok to respond how you need to respond. Sometimes that response is so organic and raw that you literally have no choice in the matter. Nine years ago, I received a call from my sister that her husband stopped breathing. She called 9-1-1, and the EMTs were there performing CPR. I rushed to her house, saw him lying on the living room floor with a team of first responders clearly working very hard to save him, and ran to my sister’s side to hold her. Literally seconds later, one of the EMTs came over and said, “I’m sorry. He’s gone.” The sound that came out of my sister is one that I will never forget and couldn’t describe if I wanted to. It was primal. You can’t choose that response.
There is a time for that response. The key is not to stay there, or allow it to envelope and paralyze you.
I’ve also learned that there is a time to allow others to respond the way they need to, to my circumstance. Sure, sometimes people say stupid stuff like, “Oh wow… My mom had breast cancer… she died.” (Thank you for sharing. That wasn’t the slightest bit encouraging.) But that is the exception, not the rule. Most people express true concern and compassion.
One of the most powerful and special moments at SHRM19 was at the North Central Region SHRM Networking event at Gordon Biersch Brewery. John Baldino, in the company of several of our colleagues, asked an interesting and insightful question about my recent haircut: “So tell me the story about your hair…”
Because in that moment I had a choice. I could choose to answer something to the effect of “I was just looking for a change…” or “summer hair” or whatever. Or I could choose to be honest.
I chose honesty.
In that moment, I shared my cancer diagnosis with a group of people who didn’t know.
Their response was so beautiful, sweet and meaningful. A couple people stood in disbelief. Two cried. All allowed me the room and freedom to share how this situation has become a platform for a message of inspiration and resilience. Followed by a ton of hugs - which, if you know me, is my favorite. (I wish I had thought of the whole "free hugs" movement. What a glorious thing that is!)
Community. A shared memory. Our stories converged. We connected.
While people are responding to your news in whatever way they do, you have the opportunity for impact.
Enter beast mode.
To everything there is a season.. A time to weep, a time to laugh…. And there is a time to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and prepare for battle.
There is a time to share that even in the face of adversity, you can be courageous. There is a time to help people put things in perspective – what it means to choose joy and gratitude in the midst of suffering. There is a time to share your gratitude - for the amazing benefits that your company offers employees that make it possible to meet the financial obligations of very expensive medical treatments; for advancements in medicine and medical technology that allow us to detect cancer earlier, and allow us to make informed decisions about our treatment plan; for a leadership team who offers unwavering support, encouragement and flexibility; for (the few) employees who know your situation who are constantly amazed that you continue to show up every day (because you love your team and you draw so much strength and inspiration from them); for friends who call and send text messages during chemo treatments to help pass the time and to bring a smile to my face; for the HR Community and the #StatelineCrew who send words and gifts of encouragement; for friends who have paved the breast cancer road before you and who share their nuggets of wisdom, tips & tricks and "I am now cancer free" inspiration. There is a time for mental grit and resilience even when you’re experiencing excruciating and debilitating pain and exhaustion. There is a time to show compassion for those with silent disabilities because you now have experienced some of your own and realize quite readily how few disabilities are actually seen.
I have found so many parallels from what I’ve learned through my breast cancer journey, and what we do in HR. It may be odd to say, but I am grateful for my diagnosis because it is making me a better person (wife, mom, friend) and a better HR leader. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with such amazing people who inspire me every day. So much so that even on my worst days, I want to report to work to demonstrate my commitment to them, and my support of the incredible work they do. Cancer has changed the way I engage with people. For the better.
Those who know me know I am not one who is easily kicked down. Cancer screwed with the wrong girl. Cancer hasn’t taken over my life, nor will I allow it to. My life continues on its trajectory – filled with fun plans, house renovations, SHRM conferences, connections with my #HRPals, morning walks with my son, evening snuggles with my daughter, and future planning with my husband. In between all of that, I am being treated for breast cancer.
I’ve gone all Spartan on this thing and it doesn’t stand a chance.
Because now is the time to fight.
#FC #StatelineCrew #HRPals #SHRM19 #SHRM19Blogger #HRonPurpose