As long as I can remember, I was always one of the few kids that always had an unwavering response to the age-old question that adults inevitably ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The question that defined success. Most young girls, even in the “pre-social media, everybody can be famous”, age that we live in today, said: model, actress, dancer, or singer. They always got a knowing smirk from the adult who asked. A few more “serious” girls would respond with: doctor, veterinarian, astronaut, or police/fire-woman. Whenever I was asked that question, my answer was always: “I am going to work in professional sports”. Instead of the smirk, I got a look of confused interest and a lot of follow-up questions.
The Devil Wears Stilettos
I always had a vision in my head of “grown-up Rebecca”, sitting in a big corner office of a sports arena or in a black business suit with a pencil skirt, major stilettoes, a high ponytail, a big hoop earring in one ear and a phone next to the other one. In my vision of success, I was a take no prisoners, driven woman in a mostly male dominated industry, calling all the shots (both on and off the court/ice/field).
In my ideal office, there were recognitions from my numerous charitable endorse, photos of me with high-profile athletes and championship trophies and rings, and various other sports memorabilia collected throughout my illustrious career. However, one glaring thing, at least for most young females, was not included; the ubiquitous pictures of a gorgeous husband and adorable kids. I guess I never thought of myself as having a family; I was always going to be career focused. I mean, how else do you get the big corner office?
Hard Work = Success
Perhaps my crystal-clear image of my successful adult life was a result of my upper-middle class upbringing in an idyllic suburb outside of Manhattan. I grew up watching both of my parents work extremely hard. Their hard work afforded them the ability to give my brother and me an upbringing where we never wanted for anything.
I watched my father, a lawyer and law professor at the time, sitting in his home office late into the night (after working a full day) and on the weekends. He would be grading papers, writing legal briefs, and reviewing case history. My mother, selflessly, put her own career aspirations aside to be a stay at home parent. She did continue to work from home when my brother and I were younger, but only around our school and social activities. Over the years, she created three very successful customer-driven businesses and grew them organically and independently.
Because of my parents’ hard work, we had a large house by many people’s standards. I graduated from one of the top 175 best public school systems in the country. We went on family vacations, had season tickets to the New York Rangers, attended sleep away camps, and went to Broadway shows. I even got a car and mid 90’s version of a cell phone when we earned my driver’s license. But nothing was ever going to be just handed over. I had to do chores, volunteer work, and give back to others in any way I could to earn spending money. “No” was a word I heard often when I asked for things and if I talked back to my parents…well, that just didn’t happen
Road Map to Success
I’m not sure if I was taught that there is a path one follows to succeed or if it was something that I surmised based on my parents, and even grandparents’ experiences, but to me it was always:
- Graduate near the top of your high school class
- Get into a top university
- While at said university, get involved in activities, do at least one internship and build your resume
- After graduation get an entry level job
- Work for a few years and then go back to graduate school
- Keep working and move up the career ladder
- And while doing all of that, do volunteer work and keep involved in your community
Best Laid Plans…
My first bump on this path was when I received my first cancer diagnosis at age 14. It happened during the summer before my freshman year of high of school. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia – cancer of the white blood cells. I endured two years of extensive chemotherapy during my freshman and sophomore years. I missed a good majority of high school due to treatment, side effects, or because I got every flu, cold, or infection possible due to my lack of immunity. However, I still managed to graduate on time. I was the first person, at the time at least, that my group of pediatric oncologists had ever treated that managed to accomplish that. It never occurred to me that not graduating and starting college on time was even an option. I was back on my track to success.
Back on Track
For the next few years, everything went according to the plan. At my top-rated university, I participated in a variety of activities. The list included: intramural sports, the school newspaper, and political clubs – after all, I went to school in Washington, D.C. I also had an active social life and did a semester abroad in Australia. I learned about new cultures, broadened my horizons, and met people that I normally wouldn’t. Not only was it a resume builder, but it was an experience of a lifetime that I have a lot of fond memories of.
During my Senior year in College, I landed an internship with Washington’s professional National Hockey League team, the Capitals. This was my first true step to getting that “corner sports office”. I finally got the chance to see the inner workings of a team. I saw what goes on behind the scenes during games, and learned from experienced professionals. By the time I graduated college, I already had accomplished the first Steps #1-3 on the path.
Room To Grow
Everything appeared to be smooth sailing career wise after graduation. I doubled down on Step #4 by getting 2 entry level jobs. The first one was with the Saints, the NFL team based in New Orleans. It was a 6-month temporary position based in the world-famous Superdome. I remember standing on the field in the middle of the empty stadium. It was just me in a totally silent building that has a capacity to be filled with over 76,000 sports fans. I was in total awe. This is a moment that lived up to every expectation I had.
When that ended, I scored my dream job back home in New York City, a full-time position with a professional sports league. I had a job with benefits, responsibilities, and was no longer the lowest person on the corporate ladder! I received my first promotion after just 14 months and loved being able to help support my favorite sport. During my time there, I gained valuable professional experience and contacts, and relished the opportunity to be surrounded by my fellow sports fans every day.
I also went to graduate school at one of the best universities in the country in the evening after work to get my Master’s Degree, Step #5 on the path. It took three years, but having additional educational experience worked hand in hand with my practical field experience to help me better understand the business of sports.
After 5 years at the league, I learned the best way to get to the big office was to keep moving, and not wait for somebody else to leave to get promoted to a vacant role. I saw too many colleagues stay still for too long and get stuck in their job. I moved on to two more full-time jobs, both for very well-known organizations. At each one, my career grew. I was nailing Step #6 on the path. I took numerous domestic and international business trips, led meetings with VPs and CEOs, negotiated and managed million-dollar business deals, and had direct reports. Somehow that corner office still escaped me.
In May 2014, while managing my own business division at a privately owned, mid-sized company, I received my second cancer diagnosis. This time it was metastatic breast cancer de novo, which will most likely be terminal. I got the positive breast biopsy 6 days before my 33rd birthday. My vision of successful Rebecca suddenly seemed very out of reach.
My boss and the rest of the executive committee were extremely supportive. They allowed me to work from home or non-traditional hours with no advanced notice, whenever needed. My boss always said that my health comes first, work will always be there waiting for me. But to me, work and health were tied. I felt the need to show everybody that I could keep up, and maybe even achieve more. I took conference calls from the chemo infusions. I would send emails from waiting rooms and was usually the first person in the office every morning, despite my constant fatigue.
Somehow, I worked through 4 different lines of treatments, and even as my cancer spread to my brain and caused seizures. There was even a time when I had a 30 second black-out at work, but then stayed for my 3:00pm meeting before going to my cancer center’s urgent care. I was later admitted to the hospital for 2 nights and the nurses had to hide my work iPad from me. I had brain radiation on a Thursday evening and was back in the office by 8:30am on Monday morning. I was not willing to let anything, not even breast cancer in my brain, stop me from continuing to perform at a high level.
I was scared my bosses would think my disease was a hindrance and would stop giving me new assignments, or even worse, try and reduce my workload. To be honest, I was more fearful that my health would stop my move up the corporate ladder, than by my health itself. To me, my ambition and need for success, was one of the few things that kept me grounded in my pre-breast cancer self. Working is what kept me normal. It was my sense of sanity in my insane world. I knew how to negotiate business deals when money was at stake. I did not know how to manage the uncertainty of metastatic breast cancer when my life was at stake.
It was not until earlier this year that I realized, after hard thinking, some crying, extreme anxiety, and a lot of conversations with my family, that my boss was in fact right, and my health did come first. I was working too hard and not getting the rest I needed, especially as my brain mets continued to progress. The amount of doctor appointments I had was increasing, as were my side effects. I could not keep up my pace. After a conversation with the higher-ups, my company and I decided to part-ways, but thankfully, they agreed to still pay for my health insurance for 18 months. I left on great terms and am very appreciative for their friendship, generosity and understanding through the most difficult time in my life.
Now that crystal clear image I had in my head all those years ago of “grown up” Rebecca the in big corner office with the amazing sports career is shattered. My ideal vision of success, the one thing I have striven for my entire life, is something that I will never get to fulfill. I mourn for what was taken from me due to cancer at a young age, before I got to reach my full potential. I worked hard all of those years and even through two different cancers, for what? Chasing a dream that narrowly escaped my grasp.
I have received a lot of recognition for my charity work and am deeply involved in the metastatic breast community. My MBC has helped me get to Step #7, which is far from expected. I also continue to work part-time for a professional sports league while on disability. It is far from ideal, but it allows me to share my experience and knowledge with people who are on the early steps of the success path. However, when I see co-workers who are on the same corporate level or above what I was, it is a reminder of the unfairness of it all. I am slowly trying to become more accepting of the fact that it will never be or will be me.
I followed the path that I was “supposed” to take, but the plan was always to keep working hard on Steps #6 and #7. There is no Step #8, so now due to circumstances beyond my control, I must improvise. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Especially since now I’ve learned that I am 100% a “flat-shoes” only type woman (seriously these women prancing around in insanely expensive and insanely painful heels in NYC must have numb feet!). Pencil skirts are NOT as universally flattering as Cosmo, Seventeen and YM magazines initially led me to believe as a teenager. I am also, oddly allergic to metal, so bye-bye hoop earrings. Finally, my hair, while still growing back from losing it for the third time, is still too short for that high ponytail.
So, here’s to re-envisioning success, what I want to be when I grow up, new priorities and the ability to improvise. The best laid plans and dedicated efforts can all be blown to smithereens just. like. that. You can either get blown away with them or you can let go and do your best to reassess and realign and aim toward your next target. No when I think about that question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think to myself, I just want TO grow up. And my new target? L I V I N G
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