“I Don’t Have Time for Cancer” – Leading Through a Diagnosis

My Happy Place: Long Sands Beach, York Maine. The girls would not be pleased with any of the pictures from Charleston in 2004, our reward trip.

I’ve been working on one of my “20 for 2020” goals lately – to create a keynote speech about leading in local government. My passion is to empower and encourage local government employees -especially women – to advance in their careers. In preparing the speech, I’ve gotten bogged down in the sort of dry leadership principles you could easily picture on a PowerPoint slide deck. Then I remembered a speaker I heard interviewed on one of my many audio book and podcast obsessions. He was an athlete who had reached great heights, then fell down pretty hard. He wanted to teach leadership principles to other athletes, but did not find success until he figured out that the only leadership story he could tell was his own. If you are not an actual subject matter expert – on stress, time management, or happiness for instance – you are certainly an expert on yourself. Everyone has a story to share that will resonate and inspire others.

I started thinking about my story, and what others might find useful or inspirational in advancing their local government careers. Over the next year I will be searching for the best examples and sharing them here. Your feedback will make that keynote a lot better!

So back to the diagnosis. Even though it isn’t a “big” anniversary, my friend and I were just reminiscing about my cancer diagnosis in 2003. I am fortunate to work just a few blocks from a first class hospital, and had my first mammogram there at the age of 40. How many of you have received the dreaded call-back: “We just want to check something?” So the next week I walked back over to the hospital for an ultrasound. The radiologist, clearly not inclined to mince words, says this: “I think you have cancer.” I then had to walk back to my office. I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone, so I called my friend. “I don’t have time for cancer” I said. She promised to do all the research. And she did.

Being confronted by a diagnosis – your own or that of a family member – will affect your leadership in different ways. For me, I was determined not to appear weak. At the time, the Town was working through the process of changing its form of government, strengthening the role of the Town Administrator to become a Town Manager. I was drafting the language and helping the elected officials explain the proposal to numerous constituent groups. I also had two young children and a more than full-time job. I simply didn’t have time for cancer.

So if you were to call me now and ask for help leading through a diagnosis, this is what I would tell you. Some of you may disagree, but that’s OK. If you call me for my opinion you are most certainly going to get it.

First, you need to take enough time for yourself and your family. If you yourself are receiving treatment, you need rest. If you are caring for a family member, you need to go to the gym. I made the mistake of powering through chemotherapy, and unintentionally set the wrong tone for staff. If your direct report is ill, you are going to tell her to take all the time she needs, and you will be annoyed if she doesn’t. If you don’t follow your own advice, the message is mixed – at best – or just plain disingenuous.

Second, you need to appear as close to well as you can while you are working. This is particularly true if you are new to your role, young(er), and female. Remember, you called me. So I will tell you that if you lose your hair you have to wear the dreaded wig. It is awful, it itches, and it is clearly a wig. But it is not a scarf or a hat. I only wore it to work, but it helped me feel more competent. It is also a good idea to have one of those stock phrases as a response to perpetual questions about your health. Something like “This isn’t my favorite season, but everyone is being so helpful and I’m getting the critical things done.” Again, diverting attention from illness to work will make you feel more confident.

Third, when people offer to help, give them actual tasks. We know that we should offer specific services to those in need, rather than saying “Let me know what I can do to help.” If you think they really want to help, try these: “Sure, can you rake? Iron? Drive a preschooler to gymnastics? Write the Annual Report? Go to the Chamber of Commerce meeting for me?”

Fourth – if you need to get regular treatment like radiation, schedule it at the end of the work day and do not go back to work. If you have a biopsy, do not go back to work and conduct a performance evaluation (trust me on this one). On the positive side, you can get a lot of classic “books on tape” crossed off your list if you have to go to daily radiation. I managed to finish both Great Expectations and David Copperfield driving in and out of Boston.

Fifth – focus on what matters. If you are gong through treatment, so is your family. Young children especially need more of your time (hello sixth grade). Plan a reward trip at the end of treatment so that you have something to look forward to.

So how about you Relentless Practice Friends? Do you have experience leading through a diagnosis that you are willing to share? Do you have any keynote speech advice?

Since you have read this far, would you consider signing up to receive the blog through email? You know how I am all about goals, and I really want to reach 100 by the end of 2020!

Let’s practice – treating ourselves with a little compassion.

4 thoughts on ““I Don’t Have Time for Cancer” – Leading Through a Diagnosis

  1. Kate, I didn’t have the pleasure of getting to know you until the fall of 2005 when I moved from CT to MA to start a new town administrator position, so wasn’t able to support you in a difficult time. Having been through a skin cancer diagnosis and treatment that was fortunately short in duration and minimally difficult, I completely agree with your advice and insights. I only wish I had such advice before my experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great advice, Kate. I would add that if you are receiving treatment, one of the side effects of which is often fatigue, it’s a good idea to step back from attending night meetings for committees/boards that don’t absolutely need your presence. You can always check in with the chair before and after the meeting or if possible, delegate to someone else. People will understand!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, I just got around to reading this (it comes through the email already for me). One of your paragraphs struck me and made me click the link to make a comment. The paragraph on “appearing as close to well as you can…”. I fully believe this is the case. I think, as a woman, this is especially important at the beginning of your career as you are establishing yourself. I went through some major personal stuff when I first started my role and took this “appearing as close to well” to heart every day. I wouldn’t, and couldn’t break down, as I was just starting out. I have found myself on the other side and feel thankful I was able to do that. Thanks for sharing the hard stuff!!

    Liked by 1 person

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