Eight years ago today, just eight weeks after losing my dad, I was knocked off the rails with an ovarian cancer diagnosis. Before that, I was the healthiest I had ever been: I was a vegetarian, ate mostly organic and unprocessed foods, drank only water (OK, occasionally some wine, too), walked five miles a day, lost a bunch of weight and never smoked.
Initially, the most challenging part of the diagnosis was juggling a full-time marketing role with medical treatment. I had enough personal time banked to cover surgery and more for chemotherapy. The severity of the drugs dictated three weeks of recovery time after each round of chemo, so my plan for the summer was to be out of the office the week of treatment, and then back in the office for two weeks. My oncologist was leery and cautioned me to avoid stressful situations.
My manager was confident we could make my proposed schedule work and urged me to do what I needed to get well. A few weeks into it, however, I realized that meant she expected me to do my job at the same pace as always. But it wasn’t a surprise we weren’t on the same page. Throughout the four years we worked together I often received mixed messages from her. We’d agree on a strategy and she’d change her mind after I’d already implemented it. She would promote me for good work and then imply I wasn’t measuring up. I’d receive a stellar written performance review and then she’d criticize my personality: I spoke too loud, I laughed too loud, my direct communication style made others feel uncomfortable. With every criticism and critique, I tried harder to please her, but it never worked. I wondered if—and secretly hoped—my cancer diagnosis might change that.
During every check-in, I told my manager I was overwhelmed and asked for help. I went to the office/HR manager as well, and suggested a temp to help with projects. When things got really bad, my oncologist provided a letter that stated I was medically disabled and outlined the accommodations required for me to keep working. Nothing changed. After two rounds of chemo and no relief at the office, my work was really piling up. My boss continued to impose unrealistic deadlines. It was the most difficult and stressful time I had ever experienced in my career.
Things really went downhill after I got into a heated exchange with a coworker during in an event planning meeting. She thought she was being helpful by making decisions in my absence; I thought she was overstepping boundaries. Afterwards, I called my doctor. He informed me that patients on chemo regimens like mine were often highly emotional and suggested it was time to take medical leave.
A few days later, my boss and the HR person called me in to discuss the meeting-turned-shouting-match and what they said was an erosion of staff relationships. I sat bewildered as they shared my coworker’s account of the argument and reprimanded me for what they said was inexcusable behavior. I broke down in tears. If my work relationships were strained in the New Year, it may have had something to do with the chemo, the stress of doing a full-time job on a part-time schedule, the pain of losing my last living parent, or the fact that my whole world had been turned upside-down in a matter of weeks. None of that seemed to matter to them. While I was recovering from my third round of chemo a week later, I received a copy of the certified letter of reprimand that was placed in my HR file.
When I returned to work two months later, my boss suggested we start with a clean slate. Her advice for me was to “be a duck” and let things roll off my back. Just a few weeks later she delivered the news that my position was changing and my salary would be cut by 13 percent. It had nothing to do with me, she said. It was about organizational effectiveness. At that moment, I knew it was time to go.
I gave notice without a new job offer or a six-figure bank account. “What about health insurance?” friends and family asked. But I felt free and fearless. I had kicked cancer’s ass and imagined nothing could be scarier than staring death in the face and telling it to get the hell out of my way. I knew nothing could be worse than wondering whether my body would make it through having organs removed and getting pumped full of hazardous waste for four months. Next to cancer, being unemployed would be a walk in the park.
Looking back, I can’t really say why I stayed in the position as long as I did. There were signs it was not the right fit long before my illness. But being diagnosed with cancer made me realize that while there are many things worth fighting for, a dysfunctional employer just isn’t one of them. The whole experience that came with beating cancer was the best thing that happened to my career.
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her 20-year career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences. Chris Olsen Communications, LLC partners with nonprofits and mid-sized organizations to develop and implement innovative marketing and communications strategies including content development, copywriting, blogging, ghostwriting, technical writing, graphic design, social media/web/presentation graphics, branding, experiential marketing and event partnerships.