How I Worked Through Chemo: Inspiration for Anyone Who Needs It

by Genoa MartellSurvivor, Invasive Breast Cancer, Ductal Carcinoma Stage 3, HER2+October 21, 2020View more posts from Genoa Martell

This post originally ran on LinkedIn. Click here to see the original version.

As individuals, a cancer diagnosis and our personal response to it is a uniquely defining moment.  All I can describe about mine was that for a very brief moment – probably only minutes in reality but to me an eternity, my awareness of time slowed down to such a calm place I wasn’t sure how to rouse myself out of it.    In that defining moment it is my belief that the majority of us decide what we are going to do about what we have just been told.  Regardless of any further information, and irrelevant of any more procedures or biopsies, I knew I was going to fight.

Usually, fighting back for me has tended to get me into a fair bit of hot water both personally and professionally.  I am incapable of not speaking up for anything or anyone I believe in.  The older I get the more nuanced my approach, but nonetheless, I always fight through situations and with experience have learned to accept my many failures as hard fought lessons, as much as my few successes as honorable victories.    I am a walking cautionary tale of something or other, depending on who you talk to.

However, this article is not about my specific cancer per se – if you want to read my medical story it lives here, and I will forever be indebted to the visionary Stephanie Chuang for her gracious rendering of my ramblings as she worked tirelessly to create a robust destination for anyone with a fresh diagnosis who needs a true and accurate “what to do next” – The Patient Story.  Instead, this article deals with one very critical position and that is : inspiration if like myself you have / need / want to work through Chemo.

Your reasons for having / needing or wanting (possibly all three) will be different to mine however, we are united in the goal that it is your current reality and a decision you have made.  When I decided it was my reality I quickly realized one pivotal element – not one of my Oncology medical professionals was going to encourage me in my endeavor.  In fact, I left one early Oncology Nurse appointment with nothing but doom and gloom ringing in my ears from how “terrible” treatment would be and how “awful” I was going to feel and “how little” I would be able to do.  I chose to put up a mental barrier during my visits with Nurse Negative and over time even had some fun at her expense – “wait, let me guess, this fourth round of chemo is going to be even more terrible than the last”.

Therefore, what follows are my three recommendations and accompanying insights from my journey working through Chemo.  It goes without saying you need a “I can do this” mindset right out of the gate.

Recommendation #1 : East meets West.  Without doubt, any cancer patient has more resources today than even 5 years ago, and I am not recommending shortcuts to any treatment plan your Oncologist decides is in your best interest.  What I am recommending however, is that you need to put eastern medicine in your toolkit so you can battle the side effects of your Chemo – otherwise being able to focus and work is going to be exceptionally difficult.  I was fortunate enough to be referred to the highly accredited Michael Broffman at Pine Street Clinic.  Michael designed a protocol for me that transitioned through each week of my Chemo cycles with the two-sided goal being 1. Not to interfere with any of my Oncologists treatment plan and 2. To help me with the side effects of the Chemo so I could keep working.

Insight #1 : I attribute much of my current personal and spiritual growth to what I learned about myself during this time and to this day I still follow a protocol from Michael to keep me healing and recovering, along with my ongoing Oncology medications.

Recommendation #2 : Decide who you will ask for help from at work but keep it a highly selective list.   Advice on asking for help once diagnosed is almost a no-brainer.  However, my recommendation is be brutally selective about who you decide to ask help from because when the going gets tough you need your “A” team around you, and not a lot of well intentioned noise from the “B” team, nor do you need a “C” team who may sincerely want to help but will exhaust you in the process.    I chose to tell my marvelous team who reported to me and the warm hearted Greeter at the front desk of my office building.  I knew if Noel on the front desk was on his shift, he would give me a positive energy “boost” to get into the elevator every day, then my hilarious team would make me laugh and boost me through the actual day of work.

Insight #2 : Most people will not notice you are changing.  For the most part, other co-workers hardly noticed when I started wearing my wig – they thought I had dyed my hair a new color and cut a new style, and I chose not to tell them otherwise.  An interesting learning was that when the odd co-worker figured out I was battling cancer, they often preferred to mumble something awkward and then stayed away from me for good.  I put this down to their own personal fears or experiences and gratefully took the space it gave me in the office.  One Friday towards the very end of my chemo I wore a bright pink wig into the office as a bet from my step-son who purchased it for me, and I realized then just how many colleagues had zero idea I was so seriously unwell.   It is also an honest reminder that the majority of people really are just thinking about themselves and rarely notice others unless it jolts them.   You literally can hide in plain sight –  if you choose to.

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Recommendation #3 : Have a plan for when your treatment ends – don’t just wing it. In the beginning all your energy is going to be spent figuring out all that is happening to you and what you need to understand about your treatment and the drastic changes your life is undergoing.  It can be grueling and scary, not just for yourself, but for those that love you.  As you transition through and count down the treatments, you will inevitably start thinking about what lies ahead when you no longer remain in the weekly Chemo cycles.   This is a very personal time and from experience, it will go through many iterations depending on how you are feeling and handling everything.  The critical piece here is that you need a plan for what you want to do when your treatment ends.  There are two reasons for this 1. It will keep you motivated to power through the last few treatments which typically are the toughest and 2. It will ensure you come out with a renewed sense of purpose having processed what is important to you in life.  Oncology professionals will sit you down and sincerely inform you that you must not feel “lost” when treatment has  ended and you are not doing something every day at the hospital to fight your cancer.  My response to that was “thank you for the heads up but I intend to go find a new job” which while not a total surprise to my closest Oncology team members who had gotten to know my personality over an 8 month period, but they were somewhat baffled that I wanted to trigger that much change having just worked through my treatment.   I was encouraged to “take some time to reflect” and not “be too ambitious” so quickly.  My strong feeling on this was I had just endured 8 months of reflection and inner work, so I was convinced I did not need any more time – if anything I felt like I had lost an incredible amount of time already.  What was true for me may not be true for you however, and I simply encourage you to have a plan that is uniquely your choice.

This leads me to Insight #3 : You can do anything with or without a wig!  The iteration of this for me as I handled everything going on during my treatment was, I knew I needed to find a new job away from a very dysfunctional leader who gaslighted all her direct reports, but I was convinced I could not interview in a wig.  In hindsight, it is totally ridiculous that I even went there in my head and it required my loving husband to repeatedly challenge me as to why I could not take matters into my own hands and interview in a wig.  For some inexplicable reason I was convinced it would shift in a stressful situation like an interview and I would be “that weird candidate”.  [Disclaimer : I work in recruiting so I am clearly jaded].   Moving on in life – whatever you decide to do after treatment has concluded, is an essential part of the recovery process and if I learned anything during this time it was that I could do anything in a wig – or without a wig.  I also learned I was so done wearing the wig at all, that  I was willing to move on into my new life without it period.  The day after my last radiation treatment, I started a new job without my wig and I simply emailed ahead to those who had interviewed me at my new company explaining why I was going to look a bit different to how they remembered me during interview.  To my surprise, these relative strangers at the time responded with heartwarming encouragement and something that was to become a new normal in my life, stories about their brushes with cancer for themselves,  family or friends.    To them at the time and now to you I share these closing reflections.

For anyone who has found this article remotely helpful, I recommend you read this powerful article featuring Holly Rowe and this equally powerful book Radical Remission by Dr Kelly Turner.  My closing insight is to simply share this powerful Elizabeth Edwards quote with you.  May your cancer storm sail you towards wonderful new destinations of fulfilling life.

Genoa Martell considers herself a global citizen, having lived and built teams in Europe, America and Canada. After reinventing herself three times in a career that has spanned a disastrous attempt at Nursing, a highly colorful career in Marketing and an extremely fulfilling career in Talent Acquisition & Recruiting, she decided to start chronicling her insights for anyone who isn’t disinterested by her opinion or perspective. You can contact her at harmonizinginsights@gmail.com.


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.

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