This may sound surprising, but battling stage 4 breast cancer has been a blessing in disguise. Facing my own mortality has changed me, both personally and professionally, so let me share a few professional “aha” moments.
First, a little background: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 during the first week of my new senior sales position at a software and technology company. Since I didn’t know my co-workers well, I leaned on my family and nonwork friends to get me through my cancer treatment. I was able to hide my treatment for a year. By the end of that year, my cancer had gone into remission. I’d made great friends at my company, and I’d been promoted.
Three years later, my cancer came back, and I needed more invasive treatments. I remember walking into my boss’s office to ask him when the best time was to take time off. He looked at me like I had three eyeballs and told me to take as much time as I needed. You may have heard the phrase, “The graveyards are filled with indispensable people.” Thanks to him, I finally embraced that principle. I took three months off to have a double mastectomy and treatment and returned to work happy to be healing.
In 2013, I quit my three-decade career in sales and marketing and started my own business as a career coach and career advocate for military veterans. I refer to this as my “work of compassion.”
Things didn’t quite go as planned. My twin sister was battling her third bout with breast cancer, and I was her caregiver. Six months after we laid her to rest in 2014, I was diagnosed with cancer for the third time and took a year off from work to fight an unfair war. Since then, I’ve been back to work full throttle while living with cancer, and I want to share some of my insights to assist with your career.
- ‘Choices’ is my new favorite word — make it yours.
Since pulling around this cancer ball and chain, I’ve become energized by the choices we have. You can choose to complain about something out of your control or spend time planning your next step. You can choose to compare yourself or your situation to others or you can be grateful for your unique self and journey. You can choose kindness the next time you speak to your co-workers, that flight attendant, your next restaurant server or that nurse. And you can recognize that your career is also all about choices.
My wish for you: Choose to get unstuck, explore options, anchor yourself in a new direction and hunt for what you want. After coaching thousands of people on their careers, it’s amazing to see how many are filled with excuses not to change. Yes, it can be scary, and there may be financial risks or other impacts, but most people who choose change look back and say, “I wish I’d done this years ago.” Next time you’re feeling stuck, why not say, “WWDD — what would Dana do?”
- Your boss is not the enemy.
Post-cancer, I’ve become sensitive to people complaining about things that are in their control. OK, I admit it — I’m actually less tolerant than before. I understand it’s easy to slip into victim mode or blame others for our unhappiness. One issue that often pops up in my practice is boss blaming. Boss bashing was a trend I saw in corporate America, and I notice it even more as a career coach. Clients will say, “I’m leaving due to my boss.” But when I probe deeper, people admit they could’ve done a better job of advocating for themselves earlier or opening the lines of communication with their bosses and co-workers.
My wish for you: Find happiness by building up the working relationship with your boss. If you don’t have consistent one-on-one meetings with your boss, ask to schedule them. If you’re unclear about how you’re performing or how your boss wants to communicate, then ask. If you’re still miserable and see no solution, then leave.
- Be interested (not just interesting) and a lifelong learner.
I wish I’d done more listening during my earlier career. I was trying so hard to be interesting and focusing on my role, my team and making time for things only related to my world that I didn’t take time to be interested in what was going on around me. Even though I’m proud of being a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend, I wish I’d also made time to learn more about the people I worked with and about topics unrelated to work.
One way to show interest is by seeking advice. I sought advice and learned from all the coaches and bosses I’ve had, from the development workshops I thought I didn’t have time for and from the tough feedback I’ve received. I’ve received my fair share of both constructive and painful criticism. Now, as an entrepreneur, there’s still so much to learn. By taking online courses, hiring specialists and asking dumb questions in private groups, I’m not afraid to take risks and seek advice.
My wish for you: Remember to be interested, be present and keep on learning. Ask yourself how to get the help you need. Build time into your schedule to learn something new every week. Finally, when you’re in a conversation with your boss, your friend or your flight attendant, be 100% there. Don’t look around or think of other things you should be doing; be genuinely interested.
In close, don’t wait for a health scare to change your career or improve the one you already have. While mental and physical health and family are often top priorities, it’s OK to be a little selfish about career and financial happiness. You can empower yourself to change your own situation.
This article originally appeared here on Forbes.com.