Juggling a career with family life, personal life, and health is always challenging, but when it comes to cancer, the challenges take on a whole new meaning. Treatments usually last for many months. They are time consuming and can be exhausting. There’s also the psychological toll of uncertainty to grapple with—all while trying to maintain the trust of colleagues.
I’ve been there. In the early 1990s, right after becoming CEO at Hughes Electronics, I was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. Hughes had 83,000 employees looking to me for direction and leadership. Shareholders and the press were assessing how I performed. It was imperative that I project a strong and healthy image. This would be challenging even if I wasn’t fighting a life-threatening disease.
On top of the very real concerns about whether I’d survive, I had to figure out how to balance my position as CEO with an intensive, 24/7 chemotherapy course that led to a bloodstream infection I also had to fight. I write all about this in my book Cancer With Hope.
It wasn’t easy, but with the expertise of one of the nation’s top leukemia specialists and the loving support of my wife, Anne, I made it through. I went on to become chairman and CEO of AT&T and Comcast. As if one life-threatening cancer was not enough, I later also battled advanced prostate cancer. The ability to continue on my career path through illness was key to my mental health; like many, I have always found immense satisfaction in my work.
Today, I’m 83 and thriving. Among the many lessons I learned is this: It IS possible to balance a career and serious illness such as cancer, especially when you combine practical steps with determination and hope.
Here are some of the tips that helped me the most, and can help others balance work with cancer treatment:
- Don’t do it alone. Everyone needs support in their health journey. That can be a friend, relative, or loved one with whom you speak regularly and can vent to if needed. I was grateful to have Anne, my wife.
- Share information strategically. If you have a high profile, choose just a few key people to share the news of your illness with. I revealed my illness only to my secretary and the Hughes board. When I had to wear a chemotherapy pack for 30 days, I simply told people my physician asked me to wear it.
- Tap into your company’s illness provisions. Most companies offer support structures such as designated time off and other legally required provisions. Find out what they are—and use them.
- Lighten your workload and your schedule. Treatments are likely to reduce your energy, so you’ll need to compensate. I rescheduled travel and found ways to shorten my long work days and factor in breaks between meetings.
- Give yourself boosts throughout the day. For me, these were as simple (and indulgent!) as Milky Way bars or a Coke, which helped boost my energy during chemotherapy.
- Consider palliative care. Not to be confused with hospice, palliative care helps you manage your illness to make treatment and side effects as comfortable as possible. Your hospital should have a palliative care department.
Finally, all cancer patients can benefit from this simple but powerful notion: No matter how bad it looks, there is almost always a path to hope. Many experts agree that hope plays a significant role in how cancer patients engage in their care and perhaps how they respond to treatments. For me, it made all the difference.
Mike Armstrong is a cancer survivor, having battled leukemia and prostate cancer in the 1990s and early 2000s. He is also the Former Chairman and CEO of AT&T, Comcast, and Hughes Electronics.