Be the Boss Over Cancer

I am a communications and PR consultant in Washington, DC and was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. My prognosis is very good, however, I will need to have surgery (possibly 2) in the next month, followed by about 5 months of chemo every 3 weeks, then possible radiation. After much deliberation, and consultation with peers and close friends, I've decided to be proactive, get out in front of any possible misperceptions, and share the news by phone with my 3 retainer clients. Questions/concerns: a) I'm concerned that my clients may be poached by other consultants or even agencies; b) Do I wait until after my lumpectomy to find out what the exact picture looks like? I don't think the idea of surgery/chemo would really change that much. c)I'm worried about new business coming my way, assuming this word starts to spread (which it will) d) There is one client that is currently a project-basis-- I get calls every couple of months. I've been meaning to propose a retainer relationship, but am concerned that if I bring this up, and then ask for a more regular relationship, then it looks like I'm using my circumstances. However, I do need to know what my income will be and probably won't be as flexible as I've been in the past. Any advice on any or all of these points? Thank you! (Talking Points for Client Calls) I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I have a treatment plan in place that will proceed during the next 6-8 months. It includes surgery in the next month, followed by a regimented and scheduled treatment plan that will end with a very very good prognosis. I plan on working full time during my treatment and have an assistant who will be a backup if and when that's needed, that will be seamless and transparent to you. Work will continue as usual around a pre-scheduled treatment plan. I intend on being very high touch during this period of time with clients. I wanted you to be aware of how I plan to proceed, that there is a plan for support to continue as usual. Let me know if I can answer any questions.


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  • Julie Jansen

    Julie Jansen on Nov 24, 2009

    Career Coach Comment:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I am so sorry about your breast cancer diagnosis and thankful that your prognosis is good.

    After reading your post on our website, I had an immediate gut reaction. While I applaud your desire to be honest and straight-forward, I wonder whether it is premature for you to let your retainer clients know what your situation is. I say this because although you have a course of treatment outlined for you by your doctors, you yet don't know how you will react and feel during your treatment.

    Additionally, you are worried about your clients being poached and about word spreading among your colleagues therefore tainting your opportunities for new business. While I believe that the likelyhood of these negative repercussions occuring is slim, there must be a reason that you feel this could happen. This is reason alone to stall filling your clients in on your cancer diagnosis.

    So, I guess what I am saying is that I would wait until you have a clearer picture of your exact situation and even after you have had surgery. At the risk of sounded jaded, while we would like to think that people are generally empathetic, experience shows that if they haven't walked in your shoes, they really don't understand what you are going through and they will tend to see the negative aspects e.g. missed deadlines or the quality of work being compromised.

    Please write if you have any questions.



  • Jennifer M.

    Jennifer M. on Nov 24, 2009

    Thank you for your reply. It's been a tough year for many

    small businesses an as a result there has been a hyper

    competitiveness among other solos. That concerns me. But

    other PR colleagues have said "don't let others

    fill in the blanks." be positive tell people you have a plan of attack." I'm also torn by who to tell. Close friend? Moderate friends?

    I'd hate for someone to see me on the street and find out

    that way. Thanks again

  • Rebecca Nellis

    Rebecca Nellis on Nov 24, 2009

    Cancer and Careers Staff Comment:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I am Rebecca Nellis, Director of Programs for Cancer and Careers. I wanted to recommend that before you disclose this to your clients you talk to your healthcare team about your desire to work full time through treatment because if they don't know that is a priority to you they can't make recommendations with that in mind. Explain to them what working full time means for you because everyone is different and ask them what to expect from a work mindset through the treatment. This will give you a better idea about how to time your announcement and hopefully give a true sense of what the treatment regimen will be like.

    Also, there are many stories on our Collective Diary ( from women who worked (and women who didn't) if you are looking for some personal stories. In addition, there is a wonderful organization called Imerman Angels which connects cancer patients with someone who survived a similar diagnosis at a similar phase in their life and I am sure they could connect you with someone who had a treatment regimen like yours and who worked so you could get a firsthand idea of what working through it was like. They can be reached toll-free at (877) 274-5529 or their website is

    Lastly, I wanted to draw your attention to one of the articles we have on the site about being self employed with cancer:

    Don't hesitate to write again.

    Good luck,


  • Marguerite C.

    Marguerite C. on Nov 24, 2009

    It would be nice to think that telling clients the truth would result in understanding. But that is often not the case. Medical issues are personal and, for better or worse, business is business. And to a client who both wants your services now and expects them next year, too, "the next 6-8 months" will sound like a very long time. Just keep on keeping on; do your work when you can and, when you are incapacitated tell the client that there is a conflict. Because that is what an illness creates; a conflict between your personal life and your professional life. Try to manage your calendar as best you can. You might also consider hiring an assistant to step in when you are unable. But be sure to get a non-compete.

    BTW, when diagnosed last April I had these sort of choices. I am and . I suspended group classes and now limit my business to distance education and private classes with no more than 2 students. I have told some people about the Cancer, but only in person and after I feel that they have already seen that my illness has not affected my talents and abilities.

    I gave one seminar with about 20 people just before radiation back June and found it really draining to try and keep operating at a normal energy level.

    Once you are in treatment, you could tell clients with whom you have a personal relationship about your cancer, but only after you've shown them that you truly are still the you they have always known.

  • Rosalind Joffe

    Rosalind Joffe on Nov 24, 2009

    Career Coach Comment:

    Jennifer- You've obviously given this a lot of thought -- or as much as one can in a short period of time in which you are integrating such a challenging experience in front of you. I agree with Julie that sometimes it's better to wait to have this discussion. On the other hand, I've written an article about this in which I encourage "getting out in front" (and I used those words) -- just for the reason you mention-they might hear it elsewhere and rumor is always worse. As a chronic illness career coach, I've had clients and friends go through the regimen you face. I think that the talking points you suggest are terrific and they show people that you have a solid plan. True, as Julie suggests, you don't know how this will affect you physically for sure. I've seen some who are more worn than others. Or how you body will respond. But by sending the positive and clear message iin your talking points, you will be in a more credible position to continue sending positive messages - even if only through your back up team. I applaud your efforts to maintain your life as best as possible. Oh - and as for who to tell?How private are you? Do you respond uneasily to others personal questions? Or do you seek support and feel comfortable seeking it? Rosalind Joffe

  • Jennifer M.

    Jennifer M. on Nov 30, 2009

    Thanks for all of the great comments. I am thinking about Tiger Woods today as I read all of these comments...Why, you might ask?

    Well, like many PR pros being quoted today, they are encouraging Tiger to get out in front of this mishap by doing an interview or reading a statement (himself) to put any questions aside. I've really thought about how to approach my own "communications challenge".

    Here's a new wrinkle: I was approached by a national news program about joining a roundtable discussion with small business owners and others who could be affected by the latest health care reform plans. My health issue has really gotten me mad about health insurance. Before I do this-- I think I would HAVE to tell clients (so they don't see me on the air). But how would you feel if you were my insurance company? Should I be worried if they seem me? I don't think they would treat me differently.

    Here's what I've decided in terms of communicating, for now:

    --To tell close friends via email (really only about 6-7 people)

    --To tell a couple of peers (other PR people, not in DC, who have offered to help as my "backup", and also gave me advice on how to approach it knowing my business)

    -A business coach, who I also team with on one project, and who occasionally throws work my way (might regret this one; I think the chemo freaked her out)

    --May tell some former colleagues who are also solo PR people now, as potential "backups"and also to let them know I'm still working, plan to work, looking for projects, etc.

    --Haven't told clients...yet. But might later.

    Surgery scheduled for next week, with another possibly later in Dec early January before chemo starts. Will likely wait to see how that plays outbefore determining who else to tell.

    Will keep you all posted and thanks again for your support and great insight.

  • Anonymous C.

    Anonymous C. on Feb 4, 2010

    Hi Jennifer

    Just read your story after posting

    I am thinking of you and wondering how you are doing -- I share the uncertainty about being self employed & dealing with a diagnosis. I was in high tech marketing as an industry analyst (like a Gartner) but as an independent/1099 -- so no stability, benefits, or med ins. Decided to transition my career in November and got diagnosis end Dec. Now I question whether I should have left the analyst world (but have a path for a 2nd interview that fits my "transition career" goal) BUT am freaked out enough by all that I dont know if I could do the PR/Marketing type life right now anyway.

    Enough bout me - just sending you good thoughts for whereever you are in the process rights now -- my experience is once a company finds a good PR rep, its like a mechanic or a good hairdresser -- you don't let them go!!!

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