by Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak
If I had a nickel for each time I had to redirect, reevaluate, revise, and refocus … well, I could be in a superior position to retire early. Unfortunately, we don’t get paid to pivot.
In college, I selected a major and made some big assumptions on how my professional life would play out. I’d get my first job and lay the foundation for being indispensable – working long days, getting coffee, schmoozing clients, doing whatever it took to move forward. After a couple of years, I planned to move on to another company which would allow me to build a strong, logical, linear career path. I’d diligently work my way up to a leadership role in my chosen industry, mentoring others as I had been mentored. I’d take a risk in my 40’s and leave my secure job to begin my own company, taking with me all the skills and knowledge I’d honed. Simple? Sure! Naïve? Definitely! Because that plan didn’t account for disruptions such as recessions, wars, terrorism, banking collapses … and a cancer diagnosis or two.
Pick a career in fashion, they said. It will be fun, they said.
I was 38 years old the first time I heard the words, “You have cancer” and 44 years old when I heard them again. Up to that point, my career path was already dinged, dented, and disrupted by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), corporate mergers, layoffs, and offshoring. After my first cancer dance ended, I found myself both hairless and jobless. But – I redirected. I looked at what I could do during this time of chrysalis and moved forward in small ways. I remained creative by volunteering in my boy’s classrooms teaching art history once a month, I grew my ceramic hobby into a small business, and I employed my organizational skills as team mom for our local Pop Warner football league.
As my hair grew, so did my confidence, and I looked to reenter my industry. It wasn’t easy but I found a local store that needed a buyer/merchandiser for their gift department focused on accessories and fashion. Had I been a buyer before? Nope – but I knew enough about fashion trends, retail math, and merchandising to make a go of it. I continued to learn new skills and I began writing, which harnessed my creative energy in a different way and led to exceptional communication skills.
A cancer diagnosis leaves cataclysmic uncertainty and disruption in its wake. The adaptation of a new normal, knowing how to redirect after upheavals, and a willingness to learn may lead you to an unexpected and joyful place.
I published a raw and unflinching book about being a young breast cancer survivor and folks in my community began asking for me to speak at local events which raised money and awareness for the cancer community. It was an opportunity to both share my story, give hope to others, and give back. I was both honored and humbled.
Eventually, after a couple of years, I did end up back in a more corporate creative role – but in reentering that space I came with new skills and a stronger sense of self. Then I got cancer again – but the second cancer dance was a bit different. I felt less victimized and more aware of how I could have more control over this situation. I looked for ways in which I could continue to learn and continue to grow. And then I realized, it was time for the designer to design her career.
In honestly evaluating my skills, talents, and creativity I took the initiative to focus on where I wanted to go. Once I knew that – I had to create the path. Which I did. And it wasn’t easy, logical, or linear; it was uncomfortable, challenging, and risky. But this here … this is the one life I get to live, and I’m going to live the heck out of it! So, I moved forward, minimized the risk as much as possible, jumped at the opportunity to relocate, and adapted to fluctuations in my industry. I led by example, and I mentored my more junior colleagues. I ruffled feathers and I questioned the status quo. I had many wins and a few losses – but I learned from each and moved forward deliberately and decisively.
A cancer diagnosis leaves cataclysmic uncertainty and disruption in its wake. The adaptation of a new normal, knowing how to redirect after upheavals, and a willingness to learn may lead you to an unexpected and joyful place. It’s never too late for fresh starts and new beginnings.
Jennifer is an executive in the textile industry, a part-time writer, and a two-time young breast cancer survivor. She has authored two books, Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald? How a Fashionista Fought Cancer with Style and most recently the fictional story Sol Sisters under a pseudonym Jenna James. She is also a National Cancer Survivors Day® speaker. You can always find her blogging away at TheFashionistaFights.com or on Twitter @_bellajenna_.