Balancing Lung Cancer and My Career

Amy McMillin, Lung Cancer Survivor

The night before I was diagnosed with lung cancer, my doctor called me at 7pm, asking me to come in the next day; it was an emergency. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to tell me, but I had had my lungs scanned earlier that day to check on a small spot, so I assumed the worst.

I emailed my supervisor that very night about the next day’s appointment. I told her I was going to the doctor in the morning, and I had no idea what was happening, but I needed all the prayers I could get. She responded immediately: “We’ll take care of it. You do what you need to do.” She and the rest of my colleagues have stayed true to this ever since.

At that doctor’s appointment, I was told I had stage III B adenocarcinoma. When they heard, my colleagues flooded my inbox with emails of support and instant messages asking if I needed anything. Even the supervisors wanted to help and asked me to let them know when I wasn’t feeling well so they could step in to help. My team has always been very supportive and ready to pick up where someone can’t, and they delivered for me in a big way.

When I found out I had lung cancer, I was still working full-time. After I was diagnosed, I took several weeks off for treatment. My human resources department helped me figure out my rights according to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Even though I no longer need it, I make sure to renew my family leave each year just in case.

I also signed up for our leave donation program, where my colleagues can donate their unused PTO days to me. The leave donation program was and continues to be my lifesaver. There are days I don’t feel well or I have to travel for treatment, and because of this program, I don’t have to worry about running out of leave.  

In total, I was off for 6 weeks and then worked sporadically for 2 weeks as I felt up to it before returning full-time. Luckily, my schedule is very flexible; as long as I’m on during our “core hours,” I can start or end when I want. On days I feel great, I try to work extra to make up for days I’m not feeling as great and can’t get as much done.

Managing cancer while working full-time would’ve been more difficult if I had to go in to the office. I’m lucky to have worked mostly from home before the pandemic, and teleworking during the pandemic has made things a lot easier. It allows me a few moments to walk away if I’m overwhelmed or need a moment.

It also gives me time to rest and recharge in the middle of the day. Because my treatment (a targeted therapy for my RET mutation) causes a lot of fatigue, I have become a big lunchtime nap person. I find if I take 20 minutes to lay down for a quick nap during lunch, it significantly recharges me so I can take on the rest of the day. If I am feeling ragged and exhausted, I notify my boss I might need a little extra time; she never questions it because she knows I will always make up my time.

When I go in for my checkups, I make sure to take my computer so I can work between appointments. It helps to keep my mind busy while I’m sitting and waiting by answering emails and doing what work I can. This is also how I let my company know I want to be there as much as they want me there.

The hardest thing for me about working with cancer is that my mind just doesn’t work like it used to. Prior to my diagnosis, I was very good at my job. I have been there for 15 years and felt like an expert in my position. I still am good at what I do, but the things that used to come naturally to me just aren’t as easy anymore. I’m a bit slower, and I need to think things through a bit more than I used to.

This is something I had no idea would be an issue. At first, it really tore down my confidence. I worried that they might not need me anymore. I was terrified of making mistakes or being a hindrance. Part of this feeling, I think, was my own feelings about being stage IV (I progressed after my initial treatment). I thought if you were stage IV, you were already dead. I needed to get past my own hangups of stage IV being a death sentence and my own fears of them getting rid of me because of my disease.  

I adapted. I created different ways of working, like using sticky notes and to-do lists more often, so I know exactly where I left off the day before. If I’m working on something, I finish it before I end my day because otherwise it will take me twice as long the next morning because I need to remember what I was doing.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is my new normal. I won’t ever be the Amy I was before cancer, but I can figure out how this Amy works best. I was honest with my boss about how I was feeling. She told me she hasn’t noticed any changes at all; at the end of the day, I still get my work out and do a great job.

If you’re newly diagnosed and aren’t sure how to balance your career and cancer, the best advice I can give is to tell the people you work with. A lot of people don’t want others to know, which is also valid, but from my experience, it makes things a lot easier when your colleagues know. Human instinct makes them want to support you and help if they can. If I had to do it alone, without my work support network, I don’t know if I would still be working today.

Today, I have had about 25% tumor and lymph node shrinkage. It might not sound like a lot, but any shrinkage is good. I trust in God, whose plan I know is perfect for me. I keep up with research and find hope in all the new developments, particularly for my mutation RET. And I follow long-term survivors who are still fighting, and I keep faith that I can keep fighting too.

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Amy with her familyAmy McMillin is a Program Analyst for the Federal Government.  She shares her story in hopes that it will give others hope and encouragement that you can fight cancer and have a successful career.  Amy is married to her incredible husband, Wade, of 22 years and has 2 sons, Hunter (21) and Logan (16).  They are her biggest supporters and are with her every step of the way.  She enjoys spending time with her family and friends.

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