From cancer patient to triathlete: How my job saved my life
(By Elizabeth Shelley as told to Nanette Varian)
“Will you have people around you?” the Johnson & Johnson Health Services doctor asked me. “Because this could be a really long weekend.”
It was a Friday afternoon in April 2015, and I was just two months into my new job at Johnson & Johnson, when I was told that a suspicious lump in my breast needed to be biopsied—fast.
“We are here for you, if you want to talk,” the doctor added. “Or even if you just want a hug in the cafeteria.”
Seven days later, I was told I had cancer.
A New Job—and Cancer Diagnosis—at 30
Prior to that fateful Friday afternoon, I had been focused on getting acclimated to my new job at Johnson & Johnson. I’d just joined the company that February to work in talent acquisition, recruiting MBA students for several of our leadership-development programs. I quickly recognized that there’s a special culture at the company—every time you turn around there’s some fun initiative or program designed to help keep you active and healthy.
In fact, within a month of starting my new job, I’d already scheduled an appointment for an in-house biometric screening, which helps keep my insurance costs down, and will allow me to compare my screenings year-by-year to see if things I’ve done with my diet and physical activity have moved the dial on my cholesterol.
I also registered, along with some of my new office friends, for TriRock in Philadelphia that summer—my first triathlon! Johnson & Johnson is a sponsor of the race, and I loved that it raises money for such great causes as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
I like challenging myself in different ways—and TriRock felt like a really great goal for me.
I run and bike, and although I’m not a very strong swimmer, I started going to a pool to practice. And after seeing photos from the previous year’s triathlon—even the Chairman and CEO, Alex Gorsky, participated—I was even more excited to be a part of it.
With my training well underway, I decided to also make an appointment to see one of the company’s Health Services physicians.
A few months prior, and not long after my 30th birthday, I’d found a lump while doing a breast self-exam. I was concerned, but time got away from me. My previous job had very little flexibility, plus I didn’t feel sick, and I had no family history of breast cancer. But once I got here, I realized, Oh, there’s flexibility—and there’s a doctor on-site.
I remember saying to the doctor, “I know this is out of your realm, but could you just check this out and see what you think?” She did, and then wrote me a prescription for an ultrasound and a mammogram.
About a week later, someone from Health Services followed up to see if I’d made the appointment. I hadn’t.
Another week passed, and they called again. By the third call, I finally thought to myself, Seriously, just make the appointment already! What’s the big deal?
So I hung up and called Robert Wood Johnson, a hospital right up the road from work. They had an opening for that Friday. I figured I’d dash over, take care of this, and then return to the office and finish out the day.
But after I had the mammogram, they kept calling me back into the room for more images. Then they did the ultrasound, and the radiologist said, “We’re going to walk you down to a nurse practitioner, who’s going to talk to you and set up an appointment for you to get this biopsied.”
That’s when I realized this was more serious than I thought.
Teamwork—in Sickness and in Health
Someone from the hospital must have notified my referring physician at work because she called me right away.
I assured her that, yes, I would have people around me that weekend: Family, but also three great new work friends, who brought me my computer from the office, and took me for a bike ride the following morning. I remember thinking I was so lucky because I had all this stuff going on, but I had this great group of friends whom I’d just met through work, but who were completely on board to help me through this.
Everything happened so quickly. I had the tests on April 24, the biopsy on April 28, and then on May 1, I was diagnosed with estrogen-positive breast cancer.
Suddenly, my world shifted from simple everyday activities to conversations about surgery, chemotherapy and egg harvesting for future childbearing.
Throughout the process, my coworkers were by my side. And my leadership team was no different. I hated having to take a medical leave so soon after starting a new job, but they made it very clear to me that the work would be covered and that I should only focus on my health.
I think my mom wanted to come and hug every single person here!
The doctors determined that the cancer was treatable—what a wonderful word to hear! On June 15, 2015, I underwent a single mastectomy. Tests on my lymph nodes revealed that I wouldn’t need chemotherapy. But I will be on Tamoxifen for the next 10 years to keep the cancer at bay.
While I was on leave for six weeks to recover, my new work friends took care of everything—and not just office duties. I had signed up for a weekly community garden food share, and they brought it to my apartment every Friday to make sure I got my vegetables. And when I stayed at my parents’ place to recuperate after the surgery, they looked after my apartment.
Back in the Running
I never made it to TriRock in 2015. But, this year, I’ll be doing a relay—one friend will swim, another will bike, and I’ll do the running portion. I’m the last leg, so I’ll have to wait, then run really fast!
Now that the weather’s warmer, I make sure to wake up earlier to get in my runs. One of my favorite training spots is a bit south of here, at Manasquan Reservoir. It’s a five-mile loop around the water that’s shaded by trees, and you can really get in the zone without worrying about traffic. It’s those times when I really get to reflect on how far I’ve come.
Last June, I was sitting on my sofa recovering from surgery. Now I just want to be able to run my leg of the race and be healthy. The cancer kind of put things on pause—but it didn’t stop me.
So many things could have happened differently. I could have stayed at my last job, and waited longer to get someone to look at this. I could have worked for a company that didn’t support me.
Our company Credo is a huge guiding compass for us. It was created by onetime Chairman, Robert Wood Johnson, and our leaders take it out when they’re making a big decision. It says that we care for our customers and our patients first and foremost, and then we care for our employees, followed by the community and our shareholders.
It’s about doing the right thing. It’s what drives our culture, and it’s what drove my coworkers to react the way they did when they found out about my diagnosis. As the youngest of six kids, and an aunt to eight nieces and nephews, I thought I had all the family I needed. But I now feel like I have an extension to my family.
When I recruit people for the company, I tell them this is a place that cares for you and cares for others. We recognize and promote leaders who say, “We’ve got your back,” instead of, “When will you be back?”