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Managing a Career and a Cancer Diagnosis

FILE - A patient receives chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, July 26, 2012.
FILE - A patient receives chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, July 26, 2012.

In 2012, 42-year-old Tara Cernacek was an executive assistant for a non-profit in New York City, when two months into her new job she discovered a lump in her left breast. After going to the doctor and undergoing numerous tests, she was diagnosed with Stage 2-B breast cancer. Her treatment plan included surgery, which involved a lumpectomy, radiation and 18 months total of chemo-therapy.

“I was very afraid because I was new at my job. They really didn’t know what I was capable of doing yet. I hadn’t proven myself, and now here I was presenting this big problem to them,” said Cernacek.

Though it was not easy, Cernacek said she was able to minimize her time away from work.

“I used a couple of vacation days, one sick day for the day of the diagnosis, then a couple of vacation days for the surgery, and the hospital worked with me on the chemo to do it early mornings or late evenings and Saturdays. So, I didn’t miss that much time. I did use all 12 of my sick days but I didn’t go over any allotted time,” she said.

Juggling treatment schedules and doctors’ appointments while working was enough of a challenge. However, Cernacek said she did not realize the physical and mental toll the treatments would take on her body.

“There were some days that were worse than others. I was very tired sometimes. And also, one of the side-effects of the chemo was chemo-brain: I got a little foggier and I needed everybody to slow down — to talk slower — so I could write everything down because I would forget a lot of things," she said. "So that was challenging, but I was able to manage that, fortunately, because the staff was very supportive.”

She said with the assistance and understanding of her co-workers who all pitched in to help her, she was able to complete projects and assignments. However, management was not always flexible.

“My actual supervisor was a little trickier to deal with. She would get very frustrated about [me] coming in late and staying late or making up the time because really she needed me there at certain times," said Cernacek. "There were some days I couldn’t be there in the morning because I would have a radiation treatment in the morning. So, I did get a little bit of stress from her.”

Laid off

“I was laid off in 2013, so I still had four months of chemo to go. That was extremely stressful because I didn’t even feel I could interview for other jobs," she continued. "Also I didn’t have my hair back. I didn’t look that well. So I stopped interviewing and did some temp work. It was very frustrating, but I don’t think I was terminated because of cancer, necessarily. I think that might have been one of the deciding factors, but there were so many people laid off during this restructuring that I couldn’t say it was me only.”

Cernacek persevered through her treatments while searching for other work that was right for her. Her tenacity paid off. She eventually found another job working in her field of expertise as an executive assistant for a non-profit.

“I just started here in August of this year. It was a really long time, two years of searching, taking temp work here and there -- a brief stint with a real estate company which was just to help make ends meet. So it was a really long search, but I’m really happy to be here now, and I hope this works out and this is for the long term,” she said.

She emphasized that she found personal and professional support through a non-profit, Cancer and Careers. They gave her advice on how to talk to her employer and to her doctors about various aspects of her disease and treatment, such as speaking up about her need to keep working throughout the process.

“I didn’t do that at first. I learned that from Cancer and Careers. And the doctors did leave out a lot of what I should expect from my work, like they never mentioned chemo-brain. They never mentioned peripheral neuropathy which would take the feeling from my fingers and toes and affect my balance,” Cernacek said.

She added that working while undergoing cancer treatment was a necessity, having a job to go to also helped her to feel normal and productive rather than being focused on being sick. In addition, she advises women to be honest with themselves and with their employers about what they can and can’t continue to do.