Exactly one year ago today, I was locked in a conference room with my coworkers divvying up a slew of work-related responsibilities before I took, what I thought would be, a brief leave of absence from the fast-paced, professional world that is high tech in Silicon Valley. Less than a month prior, my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she was about to embark on another surgery and begin her regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. Since over 1600 miles separates us geographically, I knew I would need more than work-from-home flexibility to help support her and continue to raise my own family. My work family understood that her diagnosis was a polarizing event in my life and understood my decision was one of prioritization. Although I thrive in the everything-is-a-priority-because-it’s-all—mission-critical-and-we’re-all-Type-A environment, my career was the first thing to take a backseat.
Following the start of my leave, I flew back and forth to visit whenever I could. I spent hours upon hours educating myself on breast cancer treatments and outcomes, treatment side effects, support organizations and research. And then I spent hours upon hours quelling the concerns of my father, my brother and my children while my husband tried to quell mine.
I responded to coworkers’ questions related to my return to work with a vague, “I’ll reassess when things even out,” knowing that I had up to a year to focus on the health of my mother.
Barely three months into my leave of absence and frequent flyer caregiving role (and one month after my 40th birthday), I received my own breast cancer diagnosis.
From caregiver to patient instantaneously.
This time there was nothing to toss off the boat but there was still plenty to learn.
For over eight months, I’ve documented my experiences via blog. Initially I leveraged the blog as a method of communicating with friends and family on a larger scale. As the physical treatments ended and the mental distress remained, I used the blog as a way to document my fears, plan my recovery and hold myself accountable to focus on the positive.
A year later, my mother’s treatment is going well. Although she is still receiving Herceptin via chest port every three weeks, her ‘heavy’ chemo course ended and she has regained her thick head of hair and sassy attitude.
I am now almost one month into recovery from bilateral reconstruction and feeling fantastic and whole, if still slightly frustrated with my inability to lift any significant amount of weight.
Despite the overwhelming support we have both received, I have now spent enough time participating in the larger cancer community to realize that, just like people, all cancers are not created, treated or researched alike. And the inequities are alarming.
In November we lost a friend to mantle cell lymphoma, ironically on the day Ibrutinib was approved by the FDA. In December, a dear friend was placed on home hospice 18 months after her Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis. She died nine days before my uncle died of the same disease in mid-January. And, most recently, the death of an amazing young women from metastatic breast cancer rocked my online support community.
The physical and emotional highs and lows of the past 365 days are the most extreme I’ve ever experienced and they have taken my husband and two children along for an emotional ride of their own.
Today I reflected on the past year as I belabored the decision whether to return to a company that truly treats me like family, to request a continuation of my leave or to resign.
The decision has been difficult.
The events of the previous year are now part of my emotional DNA and I need to ensure that my life remains one filled with high energy, intense passion and continuous learning. And I need to spend the days, months, years and hopefully decades contributing to tangible improvements for patients like myself and for their caregivers and families.
And so today I wrote a resignation letter.
I have chosen not to return to my intense and brilliant community of coworkers. I have chosen not to return to a high-tech company that treated me more like family than their 201122nd employee.
And that loss leaves me a bit melancholy.
Instead I have chosen to take my skills in a direction that will address the inequities in the cancer community; drive collaboration across the incredible, if slightly separate, cancer communities; and devote my energy and skills to accelerating healthcare transformation. Cancer has not been ‘a gift’ but I’ve done my best to try and brew lemonade out of the bushel of last year’s lemons that were tossed our way.
(At this point, I’ve not yet created something as light and refreshing as lemonade. Perhaps lemon curd is a better analogy – tart, sweet and kinda lumpy.)
The expanse of knowledge I’ve garnered in the patient and caregiver space is difficult to quantify but there is so much more to learn and I am invigorated by the possibilities.
Exactly one year ago I was terrified for my mother.
Today I feel a loss that quickly gives way to excitement.
Tomorrow is a new day and perhaps the start of a whole new career.