Cancer changes us. How we are each impacted, and our journeys, are as different as we are as individuals. As we return to our lives, it is not surprising that things are different than they were before cancer. Work and career are no exception.

COVID-19 has added another layer of challenge and unexpected opportunity for us cancer survivors returning to work. As offices are finally reopening, there are new restrictions and policies in place. As cancer survivors, we are more at risk of severe illness, so we need to strictly stick to these policies. Some of us also have school-age children who have and continue to be impacted by COVID-19, placing further weight on the shoulders of parents.

The upside is many of these workplace policy changes have led to a surge in work from home or remote opportunities. It could be with your current employer or there may be opportunities now available that you wouldn’t have considered before.

The abrupt closure of many offices and workplaces since March 2020 ushered in a new era of remote work. There has been a demonstrative shift in the way we work and how employers are hiring. I found my current job through LinkedIn, interviewed through Zoom and work completely remotely.

Making Employment Changes

When I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, I was running my own business of 20 plus years and in charge of a full staff. While I was going through treatment, my business was acquired. I continued to work, but I had to redefine my place in the working world. This is the first and perhaps most challenging decision cancer patients must make; how are we going to talk about our cancer or should we at all? I made the choice to be transparent about my cancer, my mental state and my needs.

Second, I discovered that I was not willing or able to sacrifice my passion and all the things that helped give my work meaning. So, I've had to carve out different paths that kept my work meaningful and allow me to exercise my core strengths and character. Ultimately, at age 60, I ended up switching career tracks after 25 years in the same industry. It hasn’t been easy, but I never could have predicted that I would land in a place so unexpected and rewarding. Being able to work remotely offered me opportunities I might otherwise have not had. It may do the same for you.

While cancer doesn’t define me, it has been a big part of my life and I am not the same. Luckily, my choice to be transparent about my diagnosis opened unexpected doors to rewarding work and the opportunity to have an impact where I might not have before. Transparency may not be the right choice for everyone, however. Privacy is to be respected and is everyone’s right.

Dana Donofree, fashion designer, breast cancer survivor and founder of the highly successful apparel brand for breast cancer patients and survivors, AnaOno, took a different path. She spoke with me about how she works passionately to thrive, not just survive.

Q: How has being a cancer survivor changed your outlook on work?

Dana: Work became different for me. Little things didn’t matter. Everyday stuff was not fulfilling anymore, life had to have more purpose. I also think it has made me a better boss. If someone makes a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you have for a cancer survivor who is returning to work?

Dana: Ease back into work life, pace yourself. It’s a process, so be kind to yourself. Communication is also key. Your boss needs to know what your challenges are. You may need to cut back on work hours or travel for example.

Q: What were some of the toughest decisions you had to make? How did you make them and what did you learn from them?

Dana: Leaving my career to start AnaOno [was the most difficult].

I started work at another company after my diagnosis and didn’t tell them. I tried to pretend that the last year and a half of treatment didn’t matter. I let them think that I was just a short-hair can-do chick. Then I just couldn’t do it anymore. When I resigned, I threw down the cancer card. I wasn’t planning to, but I realized in that moment it was real and I needed to face it. I felt relieved.

I had to accept that I was strong in a different way than as I was before cancer. I learned that I really needed to set boundaries. Having cancer, recovering from cancer and even being a cancer survivor is like having another job and you need to respect that.

Dana’s story, like so many others, highlights the personal and professional triumphs and challenges that are possible during and after cancer. Dana was diagnosed at age 27, and now, at age 39, her AnaOno line is doing amazing and so is she. She has been featured in major media and has become quite recognizable for her vision, thoughtful designs and passionate commitment to the cancer community.

Whether we are fashion designers, executives, rock stars, teachers, or whatever our work is, the choices and challenges all cancer survivors face are not that dissimilar. We must decide who to tell and how much to disclose. We have to learn how to prioritize our health while still performing well at our jobs, or we may even need to consider a career change. Most importantly, we need to determine and accept how cancer has changed us and what that means for living our best lives from this point forward.

Luckily, times have changed. People are speaking out more frequently and openly about their cancer diagnosis. This may be attributed to the unfortunate fact that cancer has become more common. Fortunately, treatments and outcomes continue to improve and, as a result, more of us are working during and after treatment. The COVID-19 pandemic, while tragic and difficult, has changed how we work and as a result potentially expands our options and opportunities.

“The art of life is not controlling what happens to use but using what happens to us.” — Gloria Steinman
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