Many of you know how coKANna came to be. But, just in case, here’s a quick recap. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the Fall of 2010 and while I was going through treatment, I realized I did not want to continue down the same career path of being a Chartered Accountant, and I did not want to go back to my job as VP Finance...at least not for the rest of my life!
I admit I told people I wanted to go back to work. But the truth is I really didn’t want to. I couldn’t say that out loud though. It’s like saying I’d rather have cancer than work. I’m betting there are others out there who feel the same way. Honestly, I enjoyed my time off. Not the cancer part, not the treatments, not the side effects…of course, not. But I enjoyed not having to battle traffic every morning, not being on a strict schedule, not sitting at a computer all day. After years and years of working in a field I didn’t feel comfortable in, I needed time off, time to myself, time to rest, and time to reflect.
Sometimes I would get a questioning look when I told people I was not planning to go back to work right away. I felt I had to explain myself, that my body and mind needed time to recuperate after treatment to be strong and healthy again. Yet, at the same time, I resented having to justify my decision to others who probably didn't understand why.
There is pressure to get right back to it, and guilt if you don’t. It comes from ourselves, our family, our doctors, our insurance companies, and society in general. There is this mentality to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back out there. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t whine, just do it.
The best advice I ever got was from another breast cancer champion about a year ahead of me who said, “Don’t go back to work too quickly. Make sure you are ready. Take the time you need to recover and get yourself as healthy as possible."
I did go back to work with the intention of making a change down the road. It took two years before I was ready mentally, emotionally and financially to leave my job and career, and start something new…a clothing design business.
It did not happen overnight. It took a lot of soul searching, conversations and discussions with my husband, family and friends. It started with a Me First Retreat to learn how to put myself first. To learn that really the only way to truly help others is to help “me” first. At that retreat, I met a coach, Betty Healey, who helped me see the possibility and then the concrete baby steps I could take to make a change in my career and life. It took time.
We are so set in our ways, in our beliefs, especially about ourselves. We often believe we are not courageous enough, not talented enough, not young enough, not financially sound enough. But, what if you could open the lid on that heavy box of outdated and misguided beliefs just a crack and see a glimmer of the possibilities that could be you? And then gradually see how you could make that happen, one small step at a time. That is what the life coach did for me.
We often hear stories of people who made huge sweeping changes in their lives. They quit their job as a Wall Street trader and moved to an island to become a surf instructor. They seem like fairy tales, something to daydream about, but not reality, not you. You have responsibilities, commitments, a family, people who depend on you. And that is true, but the thing is, those people all had families in some shape or form too, had responsibilities and commitments to their jobs and careers, and yet somehow they were still able to make a change.
That is what fascinates me, encourages me, makes me curious. When we ask ourselves why we should do something, we often quickly follow it up with a list of reasons why we can’t. I don’t have enough _________ (you fill in the blank) to do that. Why not flip it and ask “Why not? Why not me? Here’s what I do have."
While I was going through treatment and recovery, I attended a self-hypnosis course at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation’s Survivorship Centre. I know that sounds a little woo woo, out there, but bear with me. The practitioner who led the course told us about a cancer centre somewhere in the U.S. The centre had made the following observation: the people they saw come back due to a recurrence or metastasis, were those that went right back to their hectic pre-cancer lives. Those that made a change in the way they lived post-cancer, be it getting out of a relationship that was not working, or a job or career that was not working, or a diet that was not working, or a sedentary lifestyle that was not working, seemed to fair better. This is not to blame anyone for their cancer or their recurrence. It was an observation. There was no empirical data to support this. It was purely anecdotal.
Now 7 years later, after my cancer experience, I have made the same observation. Again this is not a scientific study. There is no data to back this up. It is just my observation of the small community that I have come to know. It seems that people who step back into a stressful job situation after having been through cancer once, appear to be more susceptible to being diagnosed a second time. Again, I am not blaming or shaming anyone. There are so many things that affect one person getting cancer and another person not. It really is a lottery. For all the things that make you high risk, there are many cases where none of the risk factors were present, and vice versa. A person could have all the risk factors and never get cancer.
I don’t want people to feel badly about their life choices, to feel like they caused their cancer. I just think we don’t know how to listen to our bodies, to our intuition. If your job or career was stressful before you had cancer, it will most likely be the same after you had cancer. If the position required you to work a ton of hours before you had cancer, then that probably has not changed since you’ve been off on disability. Even if you were simply bored, not engaged, just putting in time until your pension kicks in; not feeling motivated or enthused about your work; feeling like you were not making a difference, then that will not have changed either.
I understand that everyone‘s circumstances are different. We all have obligations. But if you can step back and really look at your situation, without being clouded by your ingrained beliefs, which might require an outsider, someone without a vested interest or preconceived notion of you and your life, someone like a life coach, you might be surprised at what really shows up. Your minimum viable income for your family might be a lot lower than you think. What could your family survive on, comfortably, for a few years if you wanted to make a change? Sure, there might be some sacrifices. The sacrifices might be worth it though in the long run, or you might find they are not sacrifices at all, they were habits.
Look at your core values, what is truly important to you, your non-negotiables, how you want to live your life. Look at your limiting beliefs. Sometimes it requires going back to your childhood and remembering what brought you joy. Why do you not do those things now? Does it come from someone telling you that you were not good enough, not talented enough?
If you do go back to work, put parameters around it. It will not be easy. But, you will be surprised at what you can do. Sometimes you just have to ask and then set the expectation. If you always stay late and work overtime without getting paid, then management will expect that of you. If you pack up promptly at 5:00 and head out the door, then management will come to expect that too.
You would be amazed at how your workplace can adapt to you, instead of the other way around. Again, I am not saying it will be a walk in the park, but it may be worth it in the long run. This is your life. You get to decide how you want to live it and that includes at work. If your company or manager does not want to work with you, then that is a sign too. It’s most likely not a good work environment for you, and you should probably set the wheels in motion to either change things up or leave.
When I went back to work, I made a commitment to myself that I would work from 8:00 to 4:00 and not bring work home with me. The staff, who had reported to me previously, still worked long hours. I walked out the door at 4:00 every day and they stayed until who knows what time. Was it hard? You bet. I had grown up believing that you had to lead by example. I had always rolled up my sleeves and worked longer and harder than anyone else especially those reporting to me. So it went against my belief system that had been in place for most of my life. But the truth is I had been setting a bad example. I had not been a good leader, or a positive role model.
At the end of the day though, everyone is responsible for their own life. No one was making the accounting staff work late. They were not chained to their desks. Yes, there was always too much work to get done in an 8 hour day. But, it would always be waiting there the next day. It was not life or death. No one was going to perish if that last invoice was not entered. Everyone has a choice. That is important to remember.
What I am trying to say is if you are thinking about going back to work and the thought fills you up with anxiety and dread, then that is a sign and you should pay attention. You CAN make a change. And it doesn’t have to be a huge monumental shift like quitting your job and finding a new career, or starting your own business, or moving to an island.
It could mean a change in your mindset. Perhaps going back with clear boundaries in place, first in your own mind, and then implementing them in the workplace. It could mean thinking about a toxic manager or co-worker from a different viewpoint which could change how you interact with them.
You could change your work hours, shorten your work week, job share, take the summers off, take more vacation days, work from home, take a sabbatical, or an early retirement.
You could change what you eat for lunch every day, or drink more water, or go for a walk on your break, or get up and stretch every hour, or smile more. Use your imagination and be curious. “I wonder if I change the way I do this, what would happen?"
We are creatures of habit. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and stay there. But, if we intentionally set our mind to change something, just one small thing, then that one thing can lead to another and then another…and then the possibilities are endless...