Sometimes Even the Most Experienced Communicators have Trouble Connecting

By Cat Colella-Graham

Like many of us in January of this year, with the hope of the vaccine, I returned to my regular checkups and screenings. I had a physical and went to the dentist and to my OB/GYN. My OB/GYN took blood, including a redo of my breast cancer gene (BRCA), which I had done in 2010 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He also sent me to get a mammogram.

The BRCA results came back positive, and he outlined my options. In one scenario, I could get an MRI every six months and wait and see. In the other scenario, I could have a prophylactic mastectomy. As I was weighing my options with my family, something came up on my mammogram. My doctor referred me to a breast specialist. She sent me for test after test. What started as something I just wanted to rule out, became more concerning.

In April, I was diagnosed with Paget’s disease, which is typically a bone cancer, but in my case was breast cancer. Because it is a cellular based cancer, it is very hard to detect. I was told that April 20th I would be having a bi-lateral mastectomy with hybrid DIEP flap reconstruction. My doctor told me I would have both an oncologist and a breast plastics specialist on my team, as well as a myriad of other surgeons. I was terrified but decided, given the small time frame to prepare for this let alone deal with the news of having cancer, I would power through it. Pre-surgical testing included an MRA of my abdomen, lung x-rays and more MRIs. It was exhausting having to continue working all the hours possible in a day.

Here’s where it got tricky.

I am the founder of an employee experience agency called Cheer Partners, and while we had many suitors for acquisition, we had given the rose to Lippe Taylor, an incredible agency that shares the same ethos and approach to team and client as us.

When I learned of my diagnosis and scheduled my surgery, I was so afraid to let anyone outside of my family know. I didn’t want to be sidelined, and I didn’t want to let my new work colleagues and clients down. I told my CEO I needed surgery to solve for X and would need two weeks off.

That’s right, I only took two weeks off.

The surgery was an 11-hour surgery and was successful (clean margins). But the recovery was nothing I prepared for. You cannot walk upright for weeks, resulting in lower back spasms. You need to sleep on a recliner to avoid sleeping on your side. The pain is so searing—nothing can be done. All the prescriptions make you so ill that you would rather have pain than risk throwing up. The incisions take eight weeks to scar up, so gauze pads become a regular on your shopping list. You cannot fit into any of your clothes. Your skin is very different—everything is very different—and I felt guilty for feeling like I was no longer feminine, given I was cancer free. The swelling lasts far longer than you imagine, and you don’t feel skin sensation anywhere there was surgery. And the drains, of which I had eight, were not only a nuisance, but a very painful process that lasted 11 days after I got home from the hospital.
The one good thing I was able to control was ensuring that the two lead surgeons included interns and medical students in the operating theater. I felt this complex of a surgery should be a teaching moment. The number of rounds, because of my apparently unusual request, eliminated the possibility of any rest in the hospital. But on that score, I have no regrets.

Here is where I have regret. I didn’t give my new boss or anyone at work the opportunity to react in any way. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt. I just had revision surgery last week and took three days off for it, inclusive of the surgery day itself. I have started to tell people and here are my takeaways.

  • Don’t go it alone:
    Even in a time of Covid-19—in fact especially—you need community. And you are the one to set the tone as to whether or not you are sidelined. Because of the pandemic, I had to walk into the hospital by myself, sit by myself waiting for my turn on the table and was allowed no visitors while in the hospital until I left two days after my surgery. It’s incredibly isolating, so don’t make it worse than it has to be, and your friends, family and colleagues want to help.
  • Do practice self-care:
    Advocate for your mental and physical health. Get your checkups, take 20 minutes to yourself during the day, get that morning walk in, give yourself time. I should have taken six weeks minimum off from my first surgery—I took two. And I have paid for it mentally and physically. On this score, I really feel I failed the women I lead, including my adult daughter, to let them think the little time I took was okay, or that I and I alone am invincible. I am not, and I will commit to doing better to walk the walk.
  • It’s ok to say no:
    I am a huge fan of Derek Sivers, whose decision tree philosophy book, Hell Yeah Or No, is so inspirational to me. Don’t feel pressured to go out in the world until you are ready. Don’t accept the extra workload because a former colleague needs your help. Don’t agree to stay late or have people over. Turn off the video on your Zoom calls. Embrace no.
  • Be kind to those who do know and don’t know how to react:
    When I told people, there was a lot of pity, which I didn’t want. And when they asked, “What can I do?” I generally said, “Nothing, thanks.” If you hear someone has cancer, ask “What do you need?” I can largely say that felt more collaborative. I can admit I wasn’t as good at letting people in, and for those who checked in and I dismissed you, I am deeply sorry.
  • Grieve and Accept:
    When you lose a body part, even if it is replaced with something brand new, grieve. I look at myself physically these days as a patchwork of scars, unsightly even to me. The doctors did a fantastic job, but it is still important to grieve for the loss of your former self. What I have found, now seven months into this journey, is I was okay in many ways to let go of my former self—that I have a newfound perspective. I don’t take things as personally. I also might argue I can float in a pool longer than anyone else.
  • Embrace the Present:
    Take the time to live the journey and discover what it means to you personally. Don’t get swallowed up in doomscrolling of what the future could be. Wherever you can find joy, be intentional about it. I am the lucky one in this story, and I take nothing for granted.

In speaking to breast cancer survivors, I have found a new community of people who live each day in the present and who will offer all the advice and perspective you need to process. In one instance, a friend of mine’s sister had a similar experience and recommended infrared light treatment, which was amazingly therapeutic. I also learned they were all scared, scarred and lonely in a walk that no one wants to take.

Everyone’s journey is really unique and thereby unrepeatable in any way. I am grateful to my doctors who advocated for my health even while I objected to the tests and timing, given we were just acquired. I am deeply grateful to my family and select friends who joined me in the journey and grateful to my CEO who, when I finally told him what happened, couldn’t have been more gracious and kind.

It’s breast cancer awareness month, so I would be remiss if I didn’t decide to tell my story now. I am one of many, some lucky like me, many more unlucky. Science is making great leaps on eradicating this disease every day. Please schedule your mammograms. If you feel something is there, and your doctor doesn’t agree, get a second opinion. Practice monthly self-tests. Be aware of changes in your sleep, weight, appetite and skin. I have my PET scan next month and look forward to seeing my oncologist only twice a year. There is hope, and there is help. It’s up to you to embrace both.

Cat Colella-Graham

Cat Colella-Graham is an innovative employee engagement professional who founded Cheer Partners, an award-winning employee experience agency that helps companies transform their culture. Cat is known for being a trusted C-Suite advisor to fortune 100 leaders with a specialty in building and growing diverse, high performing teams.


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