If you found out that you had a life-limiting illness, would you tell your colleagues at work? If you did, would they think you’re less capable of doing your job?
That was the dilemma that Colleen Packer faced when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2019.
“I wasn’t sure about letting people know, because I knew that would change how they saw me, and their expectations of me,” said Colleen, the director of Global Learning at the University of Calgary. Her staff of nine arranges exchanges, faculty-led field schools, and research and internship placements for over 1,200 students each year.
She continued, “I was worried about people discounting me because of my diagnosis, and that I wouldn’t have the same opportunities available. People might say, ‘Oh, we won’t give her that project because she can’t handle it.’ I didn’t want to deal with all of the questions and the well-meaning advice that is usually not helpful, and all of the pity.”
For the first year, Colleen kept her diagnosis largely a secret [CP1] at work. She only told her boss and a few close colleagues. “I was figuring things out for myself in terms of what this diagnosis meant, how I would respond to medication, what life would be like. There were so many unknowns.”
Her diagnosis had come as a great shock. “It just feels like you’ve been hit by a truck. It was a very emotional time. A very difficult time. You feel like you’re being swept along in a huge tsunami, and you have no control over it.”
Colleen, who was 45 at the time of her diagnosis, is single and has no children, so she relied on her family and close friends for much-needed support. “My sister comes to all my appointments, and my parents have been a huge support network for me. My siblings and in-laws and nieces and nephews have been an amazing support system as well.”
In addition, Colleen relied on counselling at Breast Cancer Supportive Care in Calgary, a support group at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, as well as online support and social media.
Colleen has metastatic invasive lobular breast cancer, meaning it started in the lobules, the milk-producing glands of the breast. It didn’t show up as a lump; instead, it formed a threadlike pattern, making it more difficult to detect. It is also hormone-receptor positive (HR-positive), meaning that its growth is fueled by the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Colleen receives the targeted therapies palbociclib (Ibrance), letrozole, and leuprolide (Lupron), as well as Zometa, which strengthens her bones, where her cancer metastasized.
Of the many side effects, the most difficult have been the constant fatigue and cognitive challenges. “You walk into a room, and you don’t remember what you’re there for. So that definitely has its challenges when it comes to working. So, I’ve developed a lot of reminder systems, taking lots of notes, scripting presentations.”
“Depending on where I am in my medication cycle, there are days when I feel completely weighed down like I’m wearing a lead suit. After finishing work, it’s all I can do to make it home and onto my couch. There’s no energy left for anything else, even making dinner.”
As the treatments took hold and became routine and as she learned more about her illness, Colleen began to feel more hopeful. “Still being stable on my first line of treatment gives me a lot of hope. Knowing that there is new research and new treatments coming out all the time gives me hope. Knowing people in my support group who have been stable on my treatment for longer than me, they give me hope. Working and having a purpose and knowing that my life isn’t just cancer, that I have a very rich life, that gives me a lot of hope as well.”
Colleen has continued to work full-time during her diagnosis and treatments. After a year, Colleen felt she had proven herself enough in her job to be able to tell her colleagues about her diagnosis.
“I had a close friend at work who I told fairly early on, and she became my gatekeeper. Once I was ready to let other people at work know of my diagnosis, she then became the person to whom questions were directed so I didn’t have to answer the same thing fifty million times. I really wanted work to be a cancer-free zone and a place where I could just be normal.”
Colleen’s cancer changed her approach to work. Too exhausted to work extra hours on evenings and weekends as she did before, she has achieved a greater work/life balance. “I do have a lot more work/life balance now. Before, I let work take over a lot more of my life than it should have. Now I am much more protective of my non-work time. I put that into family and friends and wellness. Making sure that I am active and going walking and hiking in the mountains. Being more deliberate about spending time with family and friends.”
“As a leader in the workplace, I try to model that for my staff as well. I don’t want them to fall into the same pattern as I did where work takes up your whole life. Where work takes precedence over your family or your health. If they want to take a mental health day, mental health is just as important as physical health. If they need time off for whatever reason, that’s so important. Their wellbeing is more important than work. So being able to empathize and to be supportive and to build a team where everyone is supportive of one another, I think, is important.”
“My perspective has changed a lot since my diagnosis. If you say that family and friends are priorities, then act like it. It certainly rebalanced things for sure.”
“It means a lot to me to be able to work despite the challenges of my diagnosis and treatment. I know that it isn’t possible for many people and won’t always be possible for me, but I am glad that, for now, because I’m giving myself the rest, I’m giving myself the balance, I am able to be effective at what I do.”
I didn't keep my diagnosis completely secret at work initially - I did tell my boss and a few close colleagues about a month after diagnosis as I knew my schedule would be impacted because of all of the various appointments and scans, etc. but other than that, I did keep it pretty locked down for the first year both at work and with friends outside my "inner circle"