How Cancer Changed My Relationship To Time

Alexis Haselberger
9 min readOct 9, 2023

Photo by Angiola Harry on Unsplash

On 10/7/22, almost exactly a year ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

To say it was a surprise is a gross understatement; I was utterly shocked.

I don’t have a family history of breast cancer. I’ve done genetic testing and I don’t have the genes that increase your risk for breast cancer. I didn’t have a lump in my breast. I was in my early 40s and healthy.

But, I had cancer.

Here’s how I found out:

In July of 2022 I had my first mammogram. My doctor said that I could probably wait a few years to get it if I wanted since I didn’t have any risk factors, but because I was over 40, insurance would cover it.

And so I added getting that mammogram it to my task system and scheduled it.

The results were inconclusive. They wanted me back for an ultrasound.

But they said it was routine; that it happens to many women my age.

I wasn’t concerned.

They said they noticed a few “suspicious” areas during the ultrasound and wanted me to get a biopsy.

I was still unphased.

I’d looked up the stats and only 20% of biopsies test positive for cancer.

The numbers were on my side.

And then I got the call. And my life turned upside down.

But now that I’m a year past the diagnosis, I’m ready to write about it.

[Spoiler alert: my cancer is no longer detectable, even though I’ll be in treatment to reduce the risk of recurrence for the next several years. So, don’t you worry about me; I’m good.)

But I don’t want this to be a sob-story all about me. Instead, I want to share with you the lessons that cancer taught me, in case they might help you as well. If you can learn from my experience, without actually having to go through a life-threatening illness, I will be so, so happy.

You have more time than you think.

You CAN make time for what’s important. I promise.

If you had asked me, before August of last year, if I could make room for 5–15 hours of doctor’s appointments, every week, while parenting and running my business, I’d have told you no.

I already had a very full schedule.

But I did, because I had to. And so can you.

Overnight, I went from a few doctor’s appointments a year to a few doctor’s appointments a week.

And yes, they had to occur during work hours.

And sometimes, they said “Ok, your appointment is at 2pm on Tuesday” and I just had to make it work.

(Thank you to my clients who graciously allowed me to reschedule some of our sessions during that time.)

And yes, this was a “need to” situation, but the fact that I was able to make it happen also means that I could have done it in a “want to” situation.

And that’s something I’m taking with me into the future.

When life throws you for a loop, readjust your goals

About a week before my diagnosis, I had done my Q4 planning.

I had goals. Lots of them.

And I had to mourn the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to make them all happen on the timeline that I intended. I had to pivot.

When something new, big, and necessary comes up, don’t try to blindly move forward with everything that you’d planned before.

A had a new, much bigger, much more important goal: to survive. Because if I didn’t hit that goal, none of the others would matter anyway.

Buffer is key

Now, this isn’t a new lesson learned, but it’s a lesson solidified.

I always keep buffer in my schedule because there are always wild cards. Every day, there’s some amount of “stuff I didn’t know about yesterday that I have to do today.

And so I plan for this.

And the fact that I already had buffer in my schedule when I got this diagnosis meant that it was much easier for me to reallocate my time as needed.

I was able to push out creative efforts instead of pushing clients and obligations to others.

Do what your brain can handle

For the first couple of months after my diagnosis, it was too much to think about creative or strategic work.

Instead, I focused on the tactical stuff. The concrete stuff. The stuff I could do in my sleep, but that still moves the ball forward.

I didn’t try to force myself to do things that felt beyond my capacity.

But I knew that for me, for my mental health, it was important to keep moving and keep doing something that produced forward momentum

Disclose judiciously

Now this one is only tangentially related to time and productivity.

But I think it’s important enough to note here: You don’t HAVE to tell EVERYONE.

And you also don’t need to keep it inside.

You don’t have to blanket statement your response.

Here’s what I decided.

I didn’t tell:

  • The vast majority of my clients because 1) my goal as a coach is to help YOU, not to make it about me and 2) when I was googling “should I tell my clients I have cancer” I ran across a blog post by an entrepreneur who said that telling her clients had an adverse effect on her business, one that she couldn’t have anticipated: people stopped referring her clients because they didn’t want to overburden her or add to her stress. But in fact, this had the opposite effect in that it was harder to get business going again when she was ready. I definitely didn’t want that.
  • Many of my friends, esp. those who live far away and that I don’t speak with frequently. I am telling them, as I speak to them naturally and organically, but I didn’t do a big email blast and I didn’t have the mental energy to make phone calls and tell this story over again and again. Esp. when I was often on the verge of tears thinking about it.

I did tell:

  • Of course my husband and kids; I didn’t consider not telling my kids. I know some people make that choice, but I knew there would be no way for me to keep it a secret, and I generally believe that kids can handle more than we think.
  • I also designated my younger sister as the family communicator. That way, I just talked to her, and she kept everyone else in the loop.
  • My closest friends
  • My kid’s schools

People are more understanding than you think

I took the entire month of December off last year to recover from surgery.

I had to reschedule lots of meetings.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but I HATE rescheduling.

I aim to be accountable, to do what I say I will, when I say I will, at all costs.

And although I knew folks would understand, it was still hard and scary for me to reschedule all those clients’ sessions.

And, yet, everyone understood, even without knowing the reason.

We’ve all got a layer of stuff happening under the surface. And people are a whole lot more gracious than you might imagine.

Ask for help and accept all help offered

Asking for help is hard.

Especially when you’re used to being self-sufficient.

But I didn’t know how taxing my treatment or recovery would be. I didn’t know how I’d feel, or what my energy levels would be like.

I didn’t know what I would be capable of while in treatment.

And so I did something that doesn’t come that naturally to me. At all.

I asked for help.

And when help was offered, I accepted.

What did this look like, practically:

  • When my mom offered to stay with us after my surgery, for as long as I needed, I accepted. She stayed for a month. She cooked dinner every night for my family. She woke up with the kids early in the morning and got them off to school so that I could sleep in and recover. She kept me company during the day, watching bad TV, and chatting. (I will forever be grateful for her help.)
  • Because I’d disclosed my diagnosis to my kids’ schools, they asked what I needed and even made some suggestions. In the end, my younger son’s school provided a meal train for the entire month that I was doing daily radiation sessions. Every day, someone dropped off a home-cooked dinner. And I’m forever grateful. They also made sure that my son had rides to and from all of his basketball games so that there was one less thing I had to think about.
  • When parents of my kids’ friends offered a ride to a birthday party, or to do the driving both ways for a playdate, I accepted and said thank you.

And when I expressed to a friend that I was feeling a little guilty about all the help I’d accepted, because I didn’t feel THAT bad, or THAT tired, she reframed it for me. She said, “Imagine how you might feel if you hadn’t accepted the help? How tired you might be?”

And she reminded me of a truth: People like to help, so let them.

And it’s so true.

I like to help. I offer help. It makes me feel good.

And I bet you do, too.

Let other people do that for you.

There are no medals for running yourself ragged.

Remember that everything passes.

What’s happening now is a blip in time.

What will matter in 5 days? 5 month? 5 years?

The hard times don’t last forever. And neither do the good ones.

And that’s OK.

You’ll savor the good more, and you’ll know that the bad will pass.

Uncertainty makes everything worse

The worst part of this whole process was not the surgery, the recovery from surgery, the radiation, the physical therapy resulting from the radiation, or even the hot flashes now that I’m in a chemically induced menopause to help reduce the risk of recurrence.

The worst part was the time between the diagnosis and having a treatment plan.

It was amorphous, and that meant it was stressful.

I felt helpless because there was nothing I, myself, could do.

I didn’t have the expertise.

I had to rely on, and wait for, my doctors.

So the next time you feel ill at ease, when things are uncertain, make a plan! It’s ok if the plan changes; having the plan will make you feel a million times better.

Don’t just absorb

Actively, and thoughtfully, reduce your load to make room for the new stuff.

Don’t give up sleep, exercise, or time to yourself, if you don’t absolutely have to.

See above re: asking for and accepting help.

I decided that recovery was not the time for trying to build new habits or learn new skills.

I put my Spanish learning through Duolingo on hold.

I accepted that meal train and took “dinner” off my to-do list.

I didn’t take on any new projects.

I delayed creative projects.

When something new and bit is happening, and you’re already at capacity, you have to let some things go, put some things on pause, to make room for the immediate.

But that doesn’t mean you’re letting go forever.

I year later, I back to spending time learning Spanish daily.

And as soon as I could get back in the kitchen (my happy plate), I was there. (Much to my mom’s chagrin as she tried to keep me out of the kitchen, to keep me from lifting things I wasn’t supposed to lift. Sorry, not sorry, mom!)

Remember that you never know what’s going on with someone

Even if we know each other, even if you were working with me at some point since Oct 2022 and now, it’s very likely the first time that you’ve heard about my cancer.

It’s not something I felt the need to disclose professionally (see above), and I haven’t posted about it on social media (until now).

When I was at my worst, this fact was a reminder to me that you just never know what’s going on with others.

And it was a reminder to treat everyone with all the compassion, empathy, and kindness I can muster.

We’ve all got a lot going on under the surface. And so I try my best to make no assumptions about you. And to meet you, and support you, wherever you are.

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Originally published at https://www.alexishaselberger.com on October 9, 2023.

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