In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
By Adriana Ermter
I worked during my entire breast cancer treatment. I didn’t want to. I had to. I live alone. I don’t have a husband or boyfriend. I pay my bills on time and by myself. Yes, it was a choice, but it was a horrible one.
I’m actually not super comfortable writing about this. It makes me feel itchy-scratchy all over, like I’m wearing a too-tight, too thick, wool turtleneck sweater. But if I don’t write about it the itchy-scratchy feeling will get worse. I know because I’ve been here before. Clearly, I’m going through something, like a blockage in my career that I need to move through. And in my heart, I know the only way through this rough spot is by sharing about how my former employer dealt with my cancer diagnosis and how it felt to work throughout it all. I won’t name names or be rude, but I’m also not going to sugarcoat my words. Honestly, I’d rather not talk about any of this at all, but that’s not working out for me. I wouldn’t feel itchy-scratchy if it was.
The Itchy-scratchy Feeling
I’ve had the itchy-scratchy feeling before. Many times actually. It’s almost always associated with my career and nine point nine times out of ten it means I need a shake up. When I was approximately four years into my dream job as the beauty director for Fashion magazine, I felt the beginnings of tiny scratchings. It was subtle for sure, but I instinctually knew I craved a wider footprint, a different kind of editorial contribution. But I fought it, because come on! I’d only had my dream job for a few years. Stopping was too scary. I didn’t know what else I would do. Plus, how could I even think of tossing aside a job I’d wanted for so many years and had finally achieved? So I shifted my title and role over to a different magazine, instead. Twice. The first was a promotion with a big magazine that ended up being an even bigger misstep, so I quit after three months. The second was a contract I was fired from six months into the job when the company lost the magazine to another publishing house. By the time this happened, the itchy-scratchy was unbearable.
That was when I accepted my first global editorial role with an international NGO. Whenever I tell people about this career segue they nod at me sagely, as though I’d corrected my previously frivolous ambitions and was finally doing something meaningful. Some even go so far as to tell me they can’t believe I wasted my time on consumer magazines. Fuck them. I loved working in-house on women’s magazines. The itchy-scratchy feelings didn’t mean I couldn’t keep writing for these publications and websites on the side, which I did and continue to do, they simply meant I needed to redirect my career goals.
I spent the next eight years advocating for families, predominantly women and children who were living in vulnerable conditions and communities. I travelled throughout Africa and the Middle East to meet with them, experience their lives and authentically capture their stories to share with the world. The first six years were really rewarding, and my editorial style expanded. But then, the itching started again and this time as a wake-up call for me to better value my self-worth in the workplace. I had an unkind boss who had been devaluing me and belittling my talent for the past two years. That was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Telling Work About My Diagnosis
My boss was the third person I shared my breast cancer diagnosis with. I had to tell her. I reported in to her and despite her frequently unkind and cruel behaviour towards me, I chose to love and respect her. It was a decision I made about six months after she started working for the company. Back then, we were constantly butting heads, she wielded her power over me like a matador’s red cape and my frustration and anger has turned me into a bull. So I decided to change my outlook and my reactions. It took approximately six months’ worth of daily meditation and self-messaging for me to get to that loving place emotionally, but it was worth it. Hating her would have been so much harder. So I took her into my confidence, shared my diagnosis and prayed she wouldn’t use is as an excuse to take away my job. Sure, if that happened I could rent out my condo, move back to Calgary and have the support of my family, but my oncology team was and is exceptional and my treatment was and remains at one of the best cancer hospitals in the country in Toronto. So I stayed and made a plan.
Because past experiences with my boss had proven she would not advocate for or on my behalf, I created a document outlining my cancer surgery and treatment path and updated her and the company’s human resources (HR) regularly as my medical condition evolved.
Typed on a Word document, then cut and pasted into my email, the plan described the minimal amount of time the surgeon demanded I take off from work to heal. Two weeks. My oncology team strongly encouraged two months, but my company didn’t have disability and when I asked HR for alternative solutions the answer was, there are none. On my document I noted how I would use my two weeks’ worth of vacation days to cover the surgery and post-surgery days. My five annual sick days would be used for all-day doctors appointments. Additional time required for treatment and doctors appointments would be made up for in extra time spent at the office. Then, I created a work-back schedule highlighting each of my projects, how I would ensure I met each deadline and the steps I would take to continue to produce quality work. I even asked my radiation doctor to schedule my months-long, daily radiation treatments for the first thing in the morning so that I could be at my desk, putting in a solid eight hours of work the rest of the day.
Replacing Fear With Self Care
I shared all of this with my friend who works in HR for a different company. She was appalled. Not with my plan, but the fact that I had to make one. This was cancer, she said. Why was I doing all of the heavy lifting? Her company had done more for their employees suffering from ongoing migraines than mine was doing for me. “And you have cancer!” she exclaimed. My friend, along with another two, one who was a general manager at a communications organization and the third, a founder of a local NGO were adamant that my transparency wasn’t enough. They weren’t being dramatic. They were being protective and realistic, based on what my company could be and wasn’t doing. According to all three, Canadian companies have employee support-solutions and programs they can implement at any time and at zero cost. I wrote down some of their suggestions and took them back to my boss and the company’s HR. They didn’t respond.
The irony that I was working for an NGO whose sole purpose was to better the lives of others didn’t escape me or anyone else I told. So at my HR-friend’s suggestion, I began documenting all of my medical updates, correspondence and reactions with and from my boss and the company’s HR department. It became my insurance policy.
I don’t have a super obvious talent like hip-hopper Twitch or prima ballerina Misty Copeland. Nor am I the late, international editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Helen Gurley Brown or billionaire tech-wizard Bill Gates. I’m just me, a woman who loves to write and edit stories that mean something. My work is subjective; it’s not always judged on its merit or quality but it is always judged. My boss rarely approved. More importantly, she openly disliked me. I wish she would have. Liked me, that is; her two predecessors did, enough to give me a raise every year for three years consecutively. My editorial has also won multiple awards… but no, my boss’ opinion was the only one that mattered. I wasn’t being paranoid or making any of it up either. Once, when I had to file a story to her from a colleague whose writing she openly praised, she assumed the copy was mine and verbally she tore it to shreds in front of our entire team, most of whom I managed. When I told her I hadn’t written the copy, that it was my colleague’s work she back peddled. Hard. And then apologized to him in front of everyone and told him what a brilliant writer he was.
Building The Big Plan
That was one in a handful of last straws. But since I was still too sick to quit my job, I created a list of my strengths and accomplishments instead. I needed to remind myself of what I was capable of. Then, I wrote a second list of all the things I would like to do once I left my current boss and the company that took my boss’ word as golden while they buried their head I the sand. I kept both lists in a drawer in the coffee table beside my couch, where I could easily access them. I read them a lot.
Six months later, my emotional and physical health plummeted and my doctors insisted I cut my workweek back from five days to three day over the next six months. Once again, I wrote a letter with a new plan detailing how I would manage and fulfil my work responsibilities and shared it, while scheduling a face-to-face meeting with my boss and HR. They responded by keeping my pay intact for the first three of the six months and then scaled it back to match my three-day workweek for the remainder of the time. I thanked them personally and gave my boss, her boss and HR a handwritten thank-you card because I was truly grateful. Throughout the surgery, months of treatment and six months of my reduced work time, neither my boss nor HR asked how I was feeling. They all did however, routinely check up on my workload and ask if everything was getting done. I never missed a deadline. Even with the two days off.
Having those two days off was life changing. The extra time gave me the space to rest, heal and think. I mostly slept and lay on the couch, but when I was alert, I envisioned a new career for myself and slowly the itchy-scratchy feeling ebbed away. As soon as I felt strong enough, I promised myself that I would quit my job and work from home, writing and editing projects that I believed in, for people and companies who believed in me.
Making a Change
After I returned to work fulltime, it took another three months before I was physically ready to give my letter of resignation, complete with four weeks notice. My boss was surprised and asked for an additional two weeks, which I gave her. The extra time turned into another two weeks and then a month and so on until my four weeks notice had stretched into three months. But at that point, I was okay with it. Mostly, I think, because I’d stopped twisting myself into a pretzel trying to prove my worth and talent to a woman who refused to see me. Having cancer, and healing from it, had stripped me of my energy and I simply didn’t have it in me to cater to her or anyone else any more. Doing my job well and believing in it and myself was freeing. Plus, once my boss realized my work was being taken away, it was gratifying to see how much she actually valued it and me, even if the words would never come out of her mouth.
Throughout my entire breast cancer experience, I was scared I would lose my job. So I’m not proud that I allowed my former boss and company to disregard my contributions and talent and my health-based needs before and during my cancer surgery and treatment. No establishment or person should ever be allowed to disrespect another human being like this, especially while they are battling a life-threatening disease. Still, I’m grateful. The experience showed me that I am able to stand up for myself, authentically and respectfully in dire circumstances. I never told anyone off, I worked hard, I took the necessary steps to protect myself and I walked away once I realized a better opportunity. It has been almost one year since I started working on my own and I’m proud of it and everything I’ve accomplished. The itchy-scratchy feelings are back, though, nudging me again, so I know something fresh and new is on the horizon. I’m leaning into it and thinking positively, even though I don’t know what it means.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her very spoiled cat, Trixie-Belle. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter