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I was able to work, succeed, and thrive while battling cancer–and you can too

Family, friends, and coworkers can be your most valuable asset as you work and recover.

I was able to work, succeed, and thrive while battling cancer–and you can too
[Photo: Ian Stauffer/Unsplash]

When I was first diagnosed in 2004 with testicular cancer, I hadn’t given the concept of work-life balance much thought. I was employed by a publicly held company and putting in long hours. To put it nicely, I was a career-oriented man. This all changed after my diagnosis.

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The great company and understanding boss suddenly became less supportive. It was made immediately clear that I would need to work while undergoing treatment and that I needed to schedule my therapy sessions outside of work hours.

The dynamics between employees who worked for me changed as well. It was like a big elephant in the room that left many wondering if I could still lead.

In the end, I was left alone to figure out how to strike a balance between what I needed to do to maintain my leadership position and what I needed to do to ensure my recovery. I quickly learned that my company was not equipped to afford me the flexibility I needed to focus on my health and sanity. So we went our separate ways.

Fourteen years later, I’m married with three elementary-school-aged daughters. Things don’t look quite as bleak as they once did. While I’m in remission, I still have to make time for trips to L.A. to have hormone pellets surgically implanted into my body for ongoing hormone treatments every 8 to 10 weeks, which greatly reduces my risk of getting Alzheimer’s, dementia, and heart failure. Fortunately, I work for myself now, building companies from the ground up. That allows me to integrate my needs into work-life with little resistance.

But not everybody has the luxury of being their own boss, so here is my best advice for succeeding and thriving during treatment and beyond.

Be transparent

High stress levels are associated with decreased white blood cell count. So you don’t need additional stress at work. Be proactive rather than reactive so that you remain in control of the situation.

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After being diagnosed with cancer, deciding who to tell and what to say can be one of the hardest decisions to make. You might think that telling your boss about your illness could put your job at risk. You might also think that sharing the news with the employees who work for you may undermine their confidence in you. The reality is, you might be right. But don’t let that stop you. This is your new reality and the sooner you navigate these issues head-on, the better.

Learn your rights as an employee. The law prevents employers from discriminating against workers with disabilities, and that includes illnesses such as cancer. That being said, the law does not oblige employers to accommodate for missed work. That’s why it’s important that you become familiar with company policies regarding these circumstances and start banking holidays for the unexpected.

It’s also helpful to identify someone who works with you in whom you can confide and who will also provide extra support when you need it most. I had several colleagues over the years who covered for me more than once on calls I couldn’t take because I didn’t feel well.

If you do end up losing your job because of your cancer treatment, be sure to find a career that best suits you and your new lifestyle when you eventually return to the workforce. Find something that fits your schedule, and something you love doing in a place you can really thrive.

Be giving

There’s no sugar-coating it: Cancer treatments leave you exhausted and depressed. During the course of my treatment I was offered a number of prescriptions to help me cope, but ultimately I found the act of helping others to be the best way to counterbalance the emotional challenges I faced. Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

I’ve been so lucky to find a career in the business of serving others. The strategy of building a giving component into my business plans has allowed those companies to really take off, which has allowed me to start even more companies that give back.

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I can’t begin to explain what this has done for my quality of life. You may find it hard to stop thinking about yourself. You may even think, “Why should I think about anyone else at a time like this?” But it can be surprisingly therapeutic to direct your attention elsewhere.

Rely on others

There is no shame in accepting the assistance of others. You wouldn’t want your pride to get in the way of recovery. Family, friends, and coworkers will be your most valuable asset.

If you can, identify one person on your team who can be your backbone. Maybe they can lighten your workload by sharing some assignments. Or maybe they can just be your sounding board when you feel really stressed. Cancer is an awkward topic and not something you talk about with just anyone. Find people you can trust. 

Embrace the future

These days, I find myself living by the calendar. It’s filled with business meetings and calls, medical appointments, school activities, my share of the household chores, domestic and global travel, and the occasional date night with my wife. In some ways, nothing has changed. But in some ways, everything has changed. You have to be ready for anything that cancer throws at you, whether that means working less or getting a new job entirely. Embrace the future, because who knows, this might be the start of something positive.

Scott Petinga is the CEO of The Scott Petinga Group, where he is a pioneer in the development of businesses that make a lasting impact on society. He is the founder of the TH!NK DIFFERENT Foundation, the Fairy Foundation, the Center of Advocacy for Cancer of the Testes International (CACTI), and a volunteer mentor with Imerman Angels of Chicago. He lives in the Minneapolis metro with his wife and three pretty amazing daughters.

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