‘HR called me in, crying. ‘Your coworkers donated sick time to you, but your employer is taking it away.’: Bilateral breast cancer survivor finds light after workplace discrimination

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“I had an itch, and that was the first time I felt a lump. It was on the outer quadrant of my right breast. I immediately went upstairs to my bedroom to see if I could feel it, and it was still there. I asked my husband to feel it. He felt it as well and agreed I needed to call my doctor.

I was 40 years old with no history of breast cancer. I called to schedule my mammogram the next day. I was told my appointment would now be diagnostic. I was scheduled to have a mammogram and ultrasound a few days later.

At the mammogram, I was told the radiologist would come in the room if there was a problem. I looked up, and the radiologist was there. He said, ‘You have a lesion, and we need to schedule a biopsy. Do you have any questions?’ I said no, but I wasn’t being truthful. I just wanted to get out of that situation as soon as possible.

I got into my car and immediately Googled what a lesion is. Google delivered bad news, a lesion is a tumor. My heart sank. I knew there was a chance I might have cancer.

Courtesy of Esther Dora Young with Forever Young Photography

I went in for my biopsy 2 days later the news was delivered. My doctor called and asked me to come in. I said please let’s talk now. She said, ‘There is never an easy way to say this. You have cancer.’ I asked my doctor if I would die, and I was told no. I then asked if I will lose my hair, but she said she didn’t know.

A month later, I was diagnosed with cancer in my other breast. I had bilateral breast cancer. It happens in less than 3% of breast cancer diagnosis. I went through surgery, chemotherapy, and daily bilateral breast radiation for 6.5 weeks.

My twin girls were 13 at this time. It was an incredibly hard season. My husband started secretly drinking daily during this season. He has been a firefighter for over 20 years, and alcohol was how he coped with his pain. Nothing seemed to be going well.

Courtesy of Esther Dora Young with Forever Young Photography

As I was finishing treatment, I asked my employer to cut back on my schedule. I had only missed 3 weeks of work. In addition to everything else, chemotherapy put me into full menopause virtually overnight. I felt horrible and flu-like most days.

In particular, I asked my employer to cut my hours back for a few weeks. The director of HR called me to her office, and she was crying. She said some things aren’t fair or right. However, she delivered the news my employer was taking away 6 months of sick time that had been donated by my coworkers. I immediately went and packed up my desk knowing I’d never walk back in the door. I started unpaid leave that day.

I went home and curled myself into the fetal position. This was worse than cancer. Cancer never pretended to be anything but cancer. The betrayal was too much. I started making plans to take my own life.

Courtesy of Cari Hahn

I remember talking to my oncology team during this time. They told me 50 percent of patients face discrimination or lose jobs during or after cancer. I stopped all anti-cancer drugs at the time. I lost the will to live during this season.

The plan was in place, but I still started praying. I had 13-year-old twin girls that were my world. I didn’t want to die, but I simply wanted the pain to end.

I told my husband I needed help, and I started counseling. I also started creating during this dark period. I started making candles with my teenage girls. I now have a candle, fragrance, and hat business using decommissioned fire hoses. My degree had been in Art Therapy 20 years before. The more I created, the more hope I had. I was finally starting to heal.

cancer survivor
Courtesy of Cari Hahn

I’m now 5 years cancer free. I still have a 30% chance my cancer will come back in a terminal form the next 5 years. I know God has a purpose and a plan for all of my pain. I give other cancer survivors that come behind me hope by sharing my story. God never left me, but he closed doors not meant for me.

My husband is now 3.5 years sober. Some days healing is hard, but I know this life is a gift. I’m so grateful for the blessings and the lessons. I hope my story helps others in their season of darkness.

My husband has now officially joined my business and is a part of the day-to-day operations when he isn’t working at the firehouse. We both speak, and most importantly, we both share our story of darkness to inspire and give hope. We give back a portion of our proceeds to mental health initiatives for first responders. If you are struggling or in a dark place, please reach out to someone and get help. My terrible season became a launching pad for a life I love filled with a purpose.

The same week that my donated sick time was taken from me by my employer, I was also told I couldn’t speak at an event. The opportunity to share my story means more than I can begin to express. I’m so grateful to be able to open up a conversation for cancer survivors, and the hard reality of the discrimination we still face. I’m hopeful talking about it can lead to change. There are laws in place, but I was too tired to fight back at the time. I hear that from many survivors. But the time is now.

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life it to give it away. – Pablo Picasso.”

Courtesy of Esther Dora Young with Forever Young Photography
Courtesy of Esther Dora Young with Forever Young Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Cari Hahn. You can follow her experience on Instagram and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d love to hear your journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read more stories like this here:

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‘It’s rare and aggressive.’ I wanted to be aggressive right back. I wanted to survive.’: Breast cancer advocate celebrates 10 years cancer-free, ‘I’m right where I’m meant to be’

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