There are 3 things in life I consider myself experienced in. Boobs, breast cancer & the boardroom.
Let’s start with the former. Also known as lumps, bumps, lady lumps, the twins, the girls and even bazooka’s. Cosmopolitan even published a list of 101 different names for boobs. True story. Some are big, some are small, some perky, some floppy, some natural and some fake. Men seem mostly obsessed with them more than we do.
A woman’s breasts are a part of your body that makes you feel womanly, feel sexy. Sometimes a tight t-shirt that shows them off, a plunging neckline, gym wear or a swimming costume. Many opt to have them lifted, tucked, made bigger or smaller. They’re the topic of many conversations, stares, movie scenes & often portrayed as what makes a woman, well, a woman.
They occupied some mind space and a bit of focus through my teenage years and puberty, my first bra, and embarrassingly showing I was cold in a swimming pool as the resident visual thermometer.
Breast Cancer – The Diagnosis
I guess for the first 28 years of my life I didn’t give them too much thought and took them for granted. I thought the next time I’d really “need” them would be if I had children and became a milk machine. That all changed in 2008 when I found a large hard lump in my right breast in the shower.
After a whirlwind of tests, including a mammogram I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 3 HER2+ breast cancer which had spread to my lymph nodes.
At 28, suddenly these once worshipped mountains became mounds of fatty tissue that could kill me. From that moment, my journey changed. Often people have asked me did I have a “treatment plan”? I call this a strategy and yes, after getting over the initial shock and horror that I could face mortality at 28, I did the one thing that put me in control. I built a strategy. For me, it was an easy choice to have a mastectomy. My strategy was simple, I wanted to give myself the best chance to live. How I looked was going to be irrelevant if I wasn’t going to be here to tell the tale.
From boobs to the boardroom
At the same time I was trying to build my career in the boardroom.
I’ve always loved to work and to be busy. To understand how work was such a big part of my cancer journey you have to know a little about my personality. Those that know me well will tell you that’s when I am the best version of myself. I’m not a nine to fiver or a 50% kinda girl that shies away from challenges. I am more like an all-in, commit-a-holic, want to over-achieve and live life to the full type of being. I also do my best work when the odds are stacked against me. It creates a fire deep inside that I can’t ignore. I joke it must be the Lebanese in me.
I’d studied a BCom Marketing, worked a few jobs in South Africa and in London and when I came back, I landed a job at AutoTrader as a Production Assistant. Not ideal, but a foot in the door I thought. I soon worked my way into a position where I could start to pursue my passion of marketing. Fast forward 3 years and I had proven myself and had been selected to be on the company’s Management Development Programme. I was ecstatic at the time but knew the hard work was about to begin. I’ll never forget the call from the company CEO once I got diagnosed. He assured me the company would be supportive, but honestly, I thought my career was about to end, when I was just about to get started.
Balancing work during chemo
I was often too overwhelmed to think straight & although I wasn’t sure if I was going to live to even finish the management programme, I was determined I was not going to let this cancer ruin what I had been working so hard to achieve. I also was convinced that if I curled up and withdrew from the world, that I was going to die.
I wanted to live, so I made a choice to work full time through my treatment.
Was it easy to balance work, rest, operations, chemo, multiple trips to the hospital, hair loss, relationships, physical and emotional fatigue and fighting for my life? No. It was a constant uphill struggle. Am I suggesting others should follow the same path? No. But somehow having a purpose every day, a reason to get up, a distraction from the cancer, kept my body & mind positive when I needed it most. For 6 months I’d have chemo every Friday, so I had the weekend to recover, and I was usually on a plane by the Monday back to work.
Working through breast cancer treatment – the struggle is real
Working did not come without its challenges though. I didn’t rest as much as I should have & that does take its toll on your recovery. I travel a lot for my job so my wig was particularly challenging & almost flew off a few times when boarding planes. I also got rushed onto a plane back from a work conference, I was so weak & ill and I knew something was wrong. I cried all the way in the car when my husband met me at the airport. My throat was on fire and being cut like a million razor blades I’d never felt so weak and so sick. My oncologist was on leave so I arranged to see another specialist.
They took my bloods late at night & I soon got the news that my white blood count was dangerously low and I was immediately admitted into hospital and placed in isolation for a few days. True to form though, I was back at work a few days later. Crazy..yes. But I was trying to get a promotion you know! Did I mention I also studied an Honours Degree while working full time with extensive travel & planning a wedding in the years that followed? Now you’re getting to know me.
Life lessons from breast cancer
So did I get that promotion? Damn right I did and so much more.
15 years later I am still with AutoTrader and the proof this time really is in the pudding. I have been Marketing Director for the past 8 years and lead a wonderful team & business partners all around the world. And I LOVE my job. I’ve survived 3 business sales, been a shareholder in the business, faced countless tough board meetings, dealt with fierce competition, been part of the team that migrated the business from a print magazine to digital, won some battles and lost some, cried a lot, laughed even more. All in a day’s work.
While I was going through my cancer journey and building my career, I realized there are so many parallels with business strategy to try and survive breast cancer and win in the boardroom. Whether you’re facing the unknown with your first chemo, wondering if your partner will still love you when you’ve had a mastectomy OR secretly shaking in your boots to do a board presentation for the first time while adjusting your skirt or your wig, I hope in sharing my survival strategies from boobs to the boardroom that I can help you be just a little braver and a lot more fierce no matter what you’re facing. Most of all, that you celebrate the power of being a woman and knowing the only person that defines that, is you.