Leaning in and looking back: My decisio…

Leaning in and looking back: My decision to dive into a new job while battling breast cancer

Feb. 16, 2017 | by Catherine Brunelle


Let’s talk about “leaning in.”

You know, that idea of pursuing a goal and pushing yourself to the forefront of opportunity.

But what does it mean when you have cancer? What does it mean to lean in?

When I discuss this with other people, the general consensus is that when diagnosed with cancer, leaning in becomes far more focused upon quality of life than quality of work.

But I don’t have kids – I have a lot of ideas. As a writer, I wanted to keep on working, keep on creating, but did I want to commit to a contract? I don’t know. How can you commit to anything when every month is uncertain?

The day I was diagnosed with a breast cancer recurrence – stage 4 seriousness - was the first time the word ‘disability’ was mentioned. The oncologist, Dr Canada as I call him occasionally, mentioned he’d refer me to a social worker so that I could learn more about disability.

Disability? I asked myself. Why would I need that?

It wasn’t too long thereafter that I encountered the very reason why folks may need disability when given a metastatic cancer diagnosis. Apart from the obvious ones like pain, treatment and so on, there is the emotional impact of cancer.

I went to a complimentary treatment center and there I met a lady who had the same diagnosis as me and even got it at about the same time. Except, somehow, she was so very different. She could barely look up, barely get her words out, and barely face the day. She was depressed. So much so that she had to leave her job early - it had simply become impossible to work.

The good news is that over the months, I saw her smile, and saw her lighten and saw her recover and find herself again - but it took a lot of work. She was truly working on herself and was leaning into her wellness - and I could see the fruits of that labour.

Meanwhile, I was struggling in my own way. Struggling to make sense of the crazy madness that is being diagnosed after you thought everything was over. As well as struggling to figure out my own life story – I hadn’t had a career from which I could retire early, I hadn’t changed the world, or really hit my professional stride – and all parts of me wanted to keep going, keep creating. My husband I were/are entrepreneurs – it wasn’t ever an option to slow down. It was more like, keep pushing, keep going, because that will keep things normal. That will keep you, you.

And so, in a way, I leaned in.

I leaned in by doing part-time work, taking on new projects, travelling and enjoying myself.

And then one day I had a job offer, a proper full-time take-on-this-project-and-make-it-happen offer. And I decided to go for it – to take that contract even though another scan was looming on the horizon.

Another scan will always be looming on the horizon. And while I’m afraid of getting terribly sick, I’m also afraid of saying no to opportunities simply because I may be living with a progressive disease.

It’s not always easy to work full time and fight cancer, but I have to say it’s damn satisfying to go to work and commit myself to something unrelated to cancer. It’s also really satisfying to feel myself coming to terms with all the newness of the job - and it’s downright incredible to see how far I’ve gotten career-wise.

By leaning in, I don’t allow room for regrets. Taking this job was the right decision. Even if, at times, I’m tired - but hey, who doesn’t get tired? And who said good things are always easily done?

I think we all have our own definition of what it means to lean in. For me, it was simply to say, “Yes,” despite any fears.

Advice side effects breast cancer career

Catherine Brunelle

Katie Pollock