WMM Contributor

Juggling It All During a Health Crisis… Words from a Breast Cancer Survivor

By WMM Guest Contributor: Carrie Matteson

Juggle (verb) - continuously toss into the air and catch (a number of objects) so as to keep at least one in the air while handling the others, typically for the entertainment of others.

This story is not so much for entertainment, rather it’s for the working moms who need to hear how important it is not only to take care of their families, but themselves, too. If the title doesn’t say it all, I’m a breast cancer survivor. I’m also a wife and a mother of two sons. Last, but certainly not least, I’m a proud small business owner of Fiber-Seal of Milwaukee, a company that I’ve run for almost 40 years.

I’ve always worked – before children, when starting a family, with growing children, with cancer, and after my children left the nest. I thought, if children couldn’t take me away from my business, nothing could. Little did I know that at 57 years old, I’d be diagnosed with breast cancer.

When you’re young, without kids or other major responsibilities, you can take all that energy and invest it in your career. Once you have the kids, a house, a spouse, a business, and a busy social life, it may not leave much left-over energy for yourself. A fundamental piece of advice that I can offer to any mom, diagnosed with cancer or not, is to make time for yourself, ask for help, accept support when it’s offered, and go to your annual check-ups. You simply must.

Step 1: Schedule your annual mammogram

I’d been getting an annual mammogram for years, never expecting the results would be anything more than a reminder to come back next year. You see, I have no family history of breast cancer and I felt no lumps. Everything changed on Halloween – October 31, 2014 – the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I had breast cancer and it was running through my milk ducts, which I didn’t know was possible.

I’ve found that mothers tend to prioritize the needs of everyone else to the point where it can impact their own wellness. At the time of my diagnosis, 3D mammography was just becoming available. It cost a little extra because it wasn’t fully covered by my insurance, but I’m confident my doctors wouldn’t have found my cancer if I didn’t “splurge” ($50) for the best technology available. I felt it was a small price to pay.

Ok … so you’ve been diagnosed. Now what?

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Take time for yourself, collect your thoughts, and breathe. Learn as much as you can by asking questions of your doctor and your care team. If you need help with what questions to ask, the Guide for Patients with a Recent Cancer Diagnosis is a free resource provided by the Kohl's Healthy Families program.   

I was lucky to have many friends and family as my personal support group from day one. So many stepped up to help cook, clean, drive me to appointments, and even wrap a whole bundle of Christmas gifts when my arms were weakened from surgery.

There are also organizations like the American Cancer Society are here to provide information, services and support programs to help cancer patients and their families with the things they need most like free rides to/from treatment.

Be the boss of your health and career

Like any business woman, I have a lot of people who count on me. That’s why I decided to be completely transparent with my team. It’s important to let your coworkers know what’s going on so you can outline a plan for how roles and responsibilities will shift at work. I determined how I’d delegate my work when I had 2-3 appointments per week. And if you’re comfortable doing it, I recommend letting your clients and customers know what’s going on so you can manage their expectations. You don’t have to share all the details, but most people will understand if you say you’re having a significant medical procedure (like a double mastectomy), versus just getting an automatic “out of office” response.

We’re all human. Most people are more understanding than we give them credit for.

After my diagnosis and through three lumpectomies that were deemed unsuccessful, I continued to work full-time. While I was going through cancer treatment, my husband suffered a stroke and was receiving speech therapy. My mom was also developing early memory loss. And did I mention my youngest son has type I diabetes? It was A LOT to cope with, all at once.

In the midst of these health crises, I started to develop depression and, with the help of the hospital system, decided to talk with another breast cancer survivor who had a similar treatment plan. For me, it was extremely beneficial to connect with other women during this time. It helped me quickly learn that physical health and mental health equate to total personal health.  

Seek, request, and accept help! You’ll need the support to keep your career and your personal life going while experiencing your cancer journey.

The strength and resilience you find in women is amazing.

Make the breast of the situation

Now, I’m not here to tell you the personal details of my life for sympathy. I’m sharing my story because we have to take what life throws at us. It would have been easy to give in to the negativity and lose sight of what’s really important. I made the choice to ask for and accept help when I needed it, to keep my chin up, and to count my blessings. My sons were, and remain, the driving force in my life. My diagnosis was a great opportunity to be a role model for them and to show them how to handle stressful situations by remaining positive.

I was also fortunate to celebrate overcoming my diagnosis by serving as the honorary breast cancer survivor for the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer of Milwaukee, presented by Kohl's. It was an honor to cut the ribbon at the start line and lead thousands of walkers who share my passion for a world without breast cancer.

I didn’t just survive cancer, we all did. My business and my husband are both doing well. And my kids are no longer kids – they’ve graduated college and are living their lives. Today, I’m happy to say that I’m cancer-free and doing a little less juggling these days.

Breast cancer survivor Carrie Matteson celebrates with family and friends as she cuts the ribbon to kick-off the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, presented by Kohl’s

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