How Cancer Ended My Career

Years of being a caregiver of a child with cancer impacted me in a variety of ways I didn’t expect. When I reflect on that time, much of it a blur, I am amazed we made it through. And even though many of the memories are painful, I also came through it all with a sense of pride. Our little family stepped up and did what needed to be done! We are still here! All in all, we had fewer losses than wins…but my career was not one of those wins.

Before I talk about that, I have to talk about my marriage (this is where my husband holds his breath).

a family of three poses for a photo
Five months into treatment. This is the family photo we submitted when we put in an offer on our house (closer to Jack’s doctors).

David and I were less than 2 years into our marriage when it all began. We both remember clearly the day that we took Jack to the hospital to be admitted, and the diagnosis that followed. We both remember the fears that attacked us—I was focused on worrying I would lost Jack, while David’s also included the thought that if we lost Jack, I would also be lost.

But David and I were solid. We somehow managed to keep in step with one another throughout the three years of Jack’s treatment, divvying up appointments and medication management and regular life duties. We leaned on one another and stayed connected even while going through the most stressful and terrifying experience of our lives.

Without that solid support from one another, those years would have so been much worse. We were complimented by Jack’s oncology team on our ability to stay on top of Jack’s medications. Many families miss doses throughout treatment because it’s so difficult to manage a very complicated schedule in which doses change by day and by week. Somehow, though, we excelled at doing what needed to be done for Jack and his treatment was likely more successful because of that fact.

I cannot even express how much it means to me that I had a solid partner throughout that time who never wavered in his support of me. I get choked up even thinking about it. (David, THANK YOU. I love you.)

man woman and child pose for a family photo in a park
The three of us posing for a photo at the annual Walk for Wishes, June 2014 (two and a half years into treatment).

But while my marriage was solid, my work suffered. On the days I wasn’t busy running from one doctor appointment to another or carting blood samples to the lab, I was often interrupted at work by calls from the school when Jack felt too sick to be there. I was tired and had trouble concentrating on detail-oriented tasks. I made mistakes that impacted how well my bosses were able to do their jobs. And I felt awful about it.

I had spent over a decade in the administrative world. My career began fresh out of high school when I became an office assistant at a construction management company in Sacramento. I eventually worked my way up to being Executive Assistant to the CFO at a software company in San Francisco. Being an EA meant that my day job involved taking care of others: managing schedules of multiple executives, juggled conflicting responsibilities from a variety of departments, making sure people were fed, training and supporting other admins, and dealing with a whole lot of paperwork.

My work duties somewhat paralleled my responsibilities at home, and in some respects it made things easier to already be in the “mode” of caregiving when I went from work to home and back. But I grew increasingly frustrated and jaded with the fact that I had to take care of adults while my kid who was fighting a life-threatening illness needed me. I also had no break from caregiving, and taking care of myself was not on my radar at all.

Needless to say, I got burned out. I give 100% to whatever I do, whether I want to or not, and that has consequences if not managed well and balanced with good self-care (a weakness of mine).

I would have quit my job if I could have but I didn’t have much choice: My job covered Jack’s medical insurance and my paycheck went toward a good portion of our mortgage and other bills (including Jack’s therapy). I knew I was lucky to have an understanding boss who, while frustrated at times to have inconsistent support from his admin, was also a parent and felt empathetic towards my situation. It was unlikely that I would find another job that would offer that kind of support to a new employee. Not to mention, it would have taken Herculean effort to get into job-search mode and I had no energy left for that.

Eventually Jack’s leukemia treatment ended. By then, my job felt trivial and I could no longer do it without feeling haunted by years of working in that place while also dealing with cancer treatments. I knew I needed something completely different, something that fed my soul and something that didn’t involve managing the needs of others. I just needed to figure out what that was.

two adults and two children look at one other in a family photo
Our family photo taken at Jack’s post-treatment party. Note the accidental-ombre hair I have going on and a complete lack of a decent photo-ready outfit.

David helped me make a decision that was completely out of my comfort zone: I took a severance package during an acquisition and I struck out into the freelance world. It scared the crap out of me! For the first time in my adult life I was not the primary financial support for my kids (and myself), a situation that to my child-of-divorce mind felt risky. It was also a risk that felt necessary in order to close the chapter on one career and begin anew.

Cancer ended my career, but it also acted as a catalyst for positive change in my life. It helped me focus on what really matters to me—family, good health, and happiness—and to become more comfortable with not knowing what the future holds. I’m still working on finding my way in my new career (something I’ll write about later), but I know that I won’t be going back to the work I did before. I’m moving forward.

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