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How A Breast Cancer Diagnosis Helped Me Rethink My Career

By Emily Piercell January 24 2018

I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer the summer after I graduated from law school.

I was 27 and had just moved to Toronto to pursue my legal career and finally live with my husband (we were married the year before and living long-distance while I was in law school). On August 26, 2015, I had to put my career on hold to endure a year of gruelling treatments. I had five months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, 25 radiation treatments, a year of Herceptin treatments and three other surgeries to fix my reconstruction. Exactly one month after my last radiation treatment, I started articling at a law firm. The articling hiring process occurs the year before you actually start working, so before I was diagnosed I had this position lined up. My doctors actually advised me against starting a full-time stressful career so soon but I was determined to be called to the Bar the following summer. It was tough to deal with incredible fatigue, chemo brain and my many doctors appointments while working in a new profession but every week my brain fog would clear a little more and my stamina would improve. Mostly, it felt great to be using the skills I had worked so hard to develop over the last few years and to not be “just the sick patient” anymore.

A year later, I was called to the Bar, finally becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately, the firm I was working at was unable to hire any students that year, so I was back to the job search and have been ever since. In the mean time, while currently working at Rethink Breast Cancer on a contract position, six months from my last legal role, I am rethinking the career I want to have.

Pre-cancer, I chose a highly stressful and demanding profession because I thought it would be a stable industry that I could excel at. Post-cancer, I don’t know if that lifestyle is realistic for me. Exercising, eating healthy and getting enough sleep is so important to my mental and physical health, including helping with the lasting symptoms of the cancer treatments and hormone therapy. Since getting the all-clear to resume regular activities from my doctors in July 2017, I have started a high intensity exercise program, am training for a half marathon, am batch cooking ‘clean’ meals and trying to stay in the present and not stressing over things I have no control over. While I try to figure out what I want to be, here’s what’s helping me through the day to day.

Volunteering in a meaningful way

I utilized every breast cancer resource I could while going through treatment so it made sense for me to start volunteering with a breast cancer charity. Giving back and helping other newly diagnosed women know that there is life after cancer feels good for my emotional healing. While I was going through cancer treatments, I would look at the social media accounts of women who were a few years beyond treatment, beginning to live their lives again. This inspired me to stay positive and continue doing everything in my power to get better. Now, I am hopefully that person for those looking for inspiration. I have met women throughout this process who will be life-long friends. They made the bad days easier and I will forever be grateful for them.

Establishing new values and goals

I had a different outlook on life before I was diagnosed with cancer. I envisioned late nights at the office, striving to make partner one day, as if I was a character on The Good Wife or Suits. Now, taking care of myself is my priority. A work-life balance isn’t just a hopeful phrase anymore. It is what I need to keep me healthy. In some law firms, this balance is looked at as laziness. Hopefully this changes.

Managing my own expectations

I am my own worst enemy by being way too hard on myself. I struggle with feelings of being a failure because I am not currently working as a lawyer. I even sat my family down a few months ago and asked them if they would be disappointed in me if I do not have a traditional legal career. Their response was “Of course not! We want you to be happy!” I am so lucky to have such a supportive family but I still need work on being supportive to myself. It is a daily struggle to remind myself that I have been through a lot and need to give myself a break.

Trusting the process and believing things will work out

I can hear you rolling your eyes but I like to believe things will work out. Most law students are hired as articling students the summer before third year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them, but I did get hired the summer after third year to start the following summer, forcing me into a year-long break. Three months later, I received my diagnosis. What made it easier for me to cope with getting breast cancer was knowing that, if there was ever a good time to get cancer, it was during this year off from school or full-time work. I had the time to focus on my health and getting better.

Right now, I am still trying to figure things out. I am enjoying living in the present and working at a charitable organization that aligns my values and lifestyle priorities. Maybe I’ll venture back into the legal world one day but for right now, I’m happy.

-Emily Piercell (@emilypiercell)


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