Kathryn Rutkowski
Feb 3, 2024

Cancer, career and finding courage: What navigating the corporate ladder with the big C taught me

In honour of World Cancer Day, Australian customer transformation expert Kathryn Rutkowski sheds intimate insight on surviving breast cancer (twice) during the pinnacle of her career, and how she found hope on the other side.

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.

Let me begin by saying that if someone had told me at the zenith of my career, that I would not only survive breast cancer once but twice, I would have dismissed it faster than a telesales call during dinner. When I asked for a new challenge at the age of 37, riding high on my soaring professional achievements, little did I know that life had an unforeseen plot twist awaiting me around the corner. Be careful what you wish for, as they say. After six years of navigating complex projects, I was facing the most confronting obstacle of all: Overcoming my own mortality at the pinnacle of enjoying everything I'd ever worked for.

Cancer

A pre-Covid career-driven corporate archetype, I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009 at the age of 33. It's safe to say it came as a total shock to me. The second time around, I couldn't have imagined it. It was November 2013, and I was being selected as one of 1,200 senior executives in a 50,000 strong company at the time. In the midst of first-round recovery, and fresh off the news of being diagnosed for a second, it was a few days before the end of the work year when an executive general manager at one of Australia's largest banks (my workplace) threw me a curveball. Over coffee, he asked about my health, and suggested I apply for a head of service management role in his team. 

Focusing solely on cancer treatment would have been the sensible choice.

However, I found myself grappling with the challenge of separating my 'real identity' from my work persona after the first bout of cancer. Unknown to me, the demise of my old work self was the root cause of my internal conflict. Interestingly, it wasn't the cancer diagnosis per se, but the removal of work from my daily life that had triggered a spectacular breakdown. Seeking professional psychiatric counseling became crucial in reconstructing my self-image and aligning my principles and goals, steering away from the identity of the dedicated workaholic overachiever that had come to define me. The axiom 'what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger' became the cornerstone of my resilience.

So, there I was. On one hand being catapulted into an executive management role at one of the best financial institutions in the country, and on the other, finding myself contributing to the breast cancer survivability statistic*. 

Career

I deliberated…then decided to plunge head-first into the application process. Phone screener, first interview, psychometric testing, second interview presentation with an on-the-spot six month plan and finally, a Q&A session that an investigative journalist would be proud to have constructed. My nerves were at breaking point when it was time for reference checks, but at least it was all happening.

I remember experiencing a literal Sliding Doors moment when returning to my desk after providing my reference details. I stepped out of the lifts, recognising that my life was quite possibly about to change, and move in opposite directions, at precisely same time. I was looking at two outcomes: Good and bad, and two diametrically-opposed situations.

Either:

  1. Cancer has spread + no new job (!)
  2. Cancer has not spread + no new job (Ok, no problem)
  3. Cancer has spread + new job (What?)
  4. Cancer has not spread + new job (Yes!) 

Guess what happened next?

Well, I was offered the role mid-cancer prognosis, so options three and four above were now a distinct possibility. There were far too many words available to describe the entire spectrum of thoughts I was processing: Elation, conundrum, quandary, discombobulation, excitement, determination. How do I navigate this? As a professional problem-fixer, with a skill set cultivated over ten long years of working, I was always proving (mostly to myself) that I could do anything, and do it 120% better than anyone else. So, how could I fix this situation? The truth is, I couldn't. All I could do was was wait for the bone and CT scans to come back and determine my fate.

As it turned out, option four came to be my career and my life for the next five years.

Courage

In 2009, employee assistance groups in Australian workplaces did not cover cancer, particularly not specific types. Their understanding of the support needed by an employee undergoing treatment was minimal. Additionally, the company's time-away-from-work policy failed to address cancer or outline an appropriate 'return to work' plan for individuals post-mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. To justify the leave taken, I was required to submit a standard medical certificate. Instead, I submitted my hospital discharge form, clearly stating "left ductal Carcinoma." It was confronting to say the least. On one hand I had been through it. On the other, a kind of foggy processing was still occurring. 

Before long, I was taking on the role of an unofficial breast cancer support person in my workplace, providing advice on what to expect, how to talk to your manager and colleagues about your diagnosis, and what support to request. I helped over a dozen work colleagues over the next three years with resources and information about my experience. I also lobbied the Group HR executive for equitable leave policies across the different organisations in the Group, after I learned colleagues in other teams were not eligible for the same benefits as I had in my department.

Navigating through my treatment as a woman in her thirties within a system crafted for older employees, I observed the stark disparity in available resources and support for someone of my age and circumstances. Corporate women aged 33-38, like myself, who typically dressed in professional attire often restricted to black, found a significant contrast in the overwhelmingly pink and purple floral-themed support booklets, mastectomy-related products, and wigs/scarves post-chemotherapy.

I wanted to see change, and to give others like me the courage to feel represented amongst a cohort of women they never thought they'd find themselves in.

I was invited to become a contributor to the Cancer Council NSW ‘Understanding Breast Cancer’ guide, adding in sections about work, partners, wigs, and self-care that resonated with my demographic. I provided experienced advice for three years between my first and second cancer diagnoses, and a way to give back to the army of health care professionals who had cared for me during my year in and out of hospital for treatments.

Bringing it all together

Looking back, I truly believe our experiences, good and bad, shape who we become and fuel the ideas and actions we project into the world— to (hopefully) have positive impact. In subsequent roles, personal, career, and volunteering, I have earnestly and humbly been able to share my knowledge and provide advice to women traversing the same path that I involuntarily travelled over 15 years ago. I hope this piece of writing gives hope and perspective to anyone who is currently navigating this journey. Please reach out if I can help you.

*Australia’s breast cancer survivability rate was 85% in 2009, 89% in 2013, and now in early detected localised cases is 99%. What a difference 15 years of research and funding makes.


Kathryn Rutkowski is director of Program Management APJ for Dayforce. She has held a number of senior roles in customer transformation, loyalty and relationship management, having worked with some of Australia's leading brands including Atlassian, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac and AMP. 

Kathryn Rutkowski – Medium

Source:
Campaign Asia

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