People wonder why I'm a radical advocate for helping people with cancer (or major illness) at work. I often write about corporate responsibility, but I don't often write about what prompted me to do so. You might wonder -- what is it with this woman that she keeps talking about this?
I am so adamant because this is a topic that hits me square on. So, it's time to tell you about me.
In the first half of my life, I experienced some challenges that relate to why I'm so passionate about people with cancer. When I was 31 years old, I was pregnant, married and extremely happy. My bubble burst right around Thanksgiving when my younger brother, age 26, found a lump, went to a doctor and was soon diagnosed with melanoma. He never had a chance. It had already spread internally through the lymph system, and he died within 10 months. My child was seven months old. You can imagine the gamut of feelings that created and the spiritual questions I wrestled with as a result. I was furious about how I was given the greatest joy in my life (my son) and subsequently lost my little brother.
These experiences led me into new work for many years to come. I was a psychotherapist and a college professor, living in a small community. I started teaching death and dying and grief classes. I started a volunteer hospice. It was a good thing, because I soon lost my mother (after supporting her emotionally with the loss of her son). My dad had died many years before.
Fast forward a bit.
I moved to NYC in 2006. I'd gotten divorced in 2003 and was ready for a new phase of my life. So, at age 60, I packed everything and moved from Austin, Texas to New York City... just for a new adventure. Living in New York had been a dream and I was ready to claim it. It was fabulous. Things were wonderful. I traveled the country and spoke at conferences. Life was great.
In January of 2009, my older brother died from long term effects of prostate cancer. He was in his 70s.
Then, later in 2009, unexpectedly, I went for my annual gynecological exam. My doctor felt "something." That something turned into breast cancer. Totally random. No immediate family history.
I remember the day after the diagnosis. I woke up, put my feet on the ground, said, "I have breast cancer" and started to cry... for maybe 20 seconds. Then, I stood up and I said to myself, "this disease isn't going to kill me." I got started "handling it." In my case, I had a lumpectomy. Then, 10 days later they did a second surgery because the tumor, once on the slab, was much bigger than expected. Reopening the same incision... not fun. Follow up treatment included four sessions of chemotherapy, followed by seven weeks of daily radiation. Oh, and two weeks after the first chemo, my hair started falling out, so I shaved my head. It was inevitable.
So, all in all, my cancer experience was about seven to eight months from discovery through treatment. But, there are a few critical things worth mentioning. I want you, the reader to know what it's really like. Now, this is only my personal experience and my personal impact.
1. I was 63 years old, living in NYC, ALONE, self-employed. That means that for most of that time I wasn't earning much income. No speaking gigs (I didn't know if I'd be alive to do them, so couldn't accept them in advance). A few of my coaching clients stayed on and we worked by phone. I depleted much of my savings to keep things together.
2. I often needed help, sometimes got it, but often was alone. I found it difficult to ask for help. But, I learned.
3. I had little energy for at least another 6-12 months after treatment ended. And, I had "chemo brain," which meant I often couldn't concentrate or remember things. Rebuilding my business didn't start happening for a long time.
4. As a result of the impact of chemo and radiation on my body, I was diagnosed about a year later with an auto-immune disease called Sjogren's Syndrome. Of course, that never goes away and I deal with it every day. Symptoms include: dry eyes, dry mouth, dry everything, exhaustion, rhuematoid issues. But, after cancer, it's a walk in the park.
So, after about two years, in 2012, I started ramping back up... in some ways, but not in others. I've continued to struggle to have enough work. My energy is still weakened.
But, the worst thing that happened to me ever was in 2013. In July, my son (age 35) discovered a melanoma on his scalp. Now melanoma is ALWAYS malignant. Remember, my younger brother died from that. Having my son have cancer is much worse than my own.
Fortunately, his surgery "got it all." Last August, we were done with it. Of course, he still goes for check ups and is careful.
His company was wonderful... they allowed him all the time he needed for doctor visits, pre-surgical tests, time off for surgery and long recovery. They loved him through the ordeal. We were all blessed by that. Now, one year later... he's great.
So, to sum up. I've been a sister to two brothers who passed on from cancer. I was also an aunt and a cousin to others (but spared you the details). I went through my own experience and then I am a mom to a cancer survivor.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. And, that, my readers, is why I'm so passionate about all this.
Thanks for reading it.
Ann Fry is an executive coach and a professional speaker. She is passionate about training management teams compassion and empathy around helping their employees and family members with cancer and serious illness.