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Finding purpose after cancer

By Andrea Whittle

I remember sitting in my oncologist’s office and telling him that four months after treatment, I would go back to work. I remember convincing myself cancer would just be a blip in my life and after treatment my life would go back to how it was before.

Well, turns out I was completely blind to how long it was actually going to take to have my life “back to normal” again. It took two-and-a-half years after active treatment before I thought I was strong enough to go back to work full-time.

I was a retail store manager who had a lot of responsibilities — managing staff, receiving stock, eight hours on my feet, multitasking, store visual changes, counting money, etc. When I went back to work, I was not prepared for how my mind and body had changed dramatically over the course of more than two years.

I realized pretty quickly my physical and mental abilities were a lot different. I could no longer feel confident in my role, but I tried my best and hoped my body would get stronger as time went on. Well, the opposite happened.

“I realized pretty quickly my physical and
mental abilities were a lot different.”

I was having a really hard time multitasking; I noticed I was now dyslexic and told customers the wrong totals. I would say the numbers backwards and not even notice! Closing the tills was taking longer because I would really need to make sure my numbers were balanced. I was physically drained after every day and in the evenings, I had zero energy to cook dinner and keep up with housework. I was now a 24/7 single parent and had to find the energy to be a mom to a then seven-year-old. My brain fog was heightened at night, and by the end of the week, I could not form sentences, froze in conversations, and didn’t know what I was saying or even what the topic was being discussed.

PTSD was the icing on the cake. The store I worked at had Build-A-Bear right across. When kids came in on their birthdays, they would get to ring a bell. Well, this bell sounded exactly like the bell you ring at CancerCare when your treatments are done. Every time I heard this bell (which was multiple times a day), I would flash back to the chemo room. I would be in that oversized blue chair, feeling my port being used on my chest, smelling and tasting the chemicals, feeling that nausea in my belly. It was not a fun memory to be thrown into multiple times a day.

I would be talking to a customer and then that bell would go off and — boom! — I was in another world and did not notice the customer anymore and stopped the conversation. It was really embarrassing when the customer would look at me like, “Are you ok?” It was painful to relive this and have to explain myself so often.

Depression really piled on as self doubt and self esteem was getting beaten down a little more every day, and I went deeper and deeper into depression.

After eight months, I finally broke. I told my counsellor to lock me up because I thought I was going insane! He refused and told me to take a break from work and focus on myself. He said, “You’re not done healing yet and your son needs you.” So, I took that advice, and went back on Disability Employment and Income Assistance for the next two-and-a-half years.

During this time, I focused hard on myself and coming out of that depression and finding my purpose in life again. I had to accept that I would never return to the “old Andrea” and focused on finding my new strengths to capitalize on them for “new Andrea’s” future.

I have always enjoyed helping people, I love to solve problems, I love to help others succeed in their goals and dreams. I knew I could not do a physical job anymore, so that limited me to a desk job. I had always wanted to work in a Human Resources Department. In this role I could continue to help people, solve problems, and continue to let my body heal.

To get this dream to come true, I needed to go back to school. That was scary! I kept thinking, “How am I going to afford this? Can I even do this with my brain fog?” 

I found a one-year course and I qualified for government funding. I had three months to quit if I could not do it, the money would be refunded to the government, and I would be fine.

Next, I wrote out my limitations and strategies for school:


Once I made a list of my limitations and some solutions to help cope, it took away the self doubt that I could not do this. I immediately told the intake lady that I had cancer and I wasn’t sure if I could do this due to surgeries and treatments, but I am determined to try! She reassured me that I could do this, and they would support me in my journey.

I graduated one-and-a-half years later with honours with a Diploma in Business Administration and a Certificate in Human Resources for Professionals with a final GPA over 3.5! It was not easy, but I did it! I rode the waves, took my time, and had patience for myself when I was struggling.  

Now it has been five years since I was diagnosed and I am working at my dream job with confidence and no shame of how I got to this day.

I hope this post inspires and gives hope to my fellow peers. Even though cancer may have thrown your past goals and dreams away, there is a new path for you to take, and you can set new goals and achieve them. Do not rush yourself back to work; start slow and take your time. It does take longer to recover from treatments than to go through the treatments.

Do not be ashamed to tell others you have limitations and that you may need some extra support at times. You’re not alone and it’s ok to ask for help.

Andrea recommends the Cancer And Work website to anyone looking for advice on building your career or getting back to work after a diagnosis. 

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