Real Women: 'I Kept Working While I Had Cancer'

Work doesn't stop when cancer treatments start. Here's how three real women balance their careers with their cancer treatments.

Jean Zimmerman, 65, breast cancer

Once she turned 40, Jean Zimmerman always scheduled an annual mammogram. Every year except for one. “In the process of life, I let it go and I didn’t get my mammogram one year,” says Zimmerman. “It was the first time in almost 25 years I didn’t get one.”

When she scheduled her appointment the following year, the test results were delivered via an urgent phone call. She needed a biopsy. And no, she couldn’t wait a week. It had to be done that day. “My doctor called me crying,” says Zimmerman. “Three weeks later I had surgery.”

At the time of her diagnosis, Zimmerman was running her own cosmetics consulting firm, an enterprise focused on helping small startups get a foothold in the cosmetics industry. It was a world she was well-acquainted with, having spent 27 years at Chanel and retiring as executive vice president.

Zimmerman currently sits on the board of Cancer and Careers, the charitable arm of Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW), a not-for-profit professional organization. But she never expected she'd need to use its resources. Cancer and Careers -- founded in 2001 after five out of 40 board members of CEW had been diagnosed with cancer -- aims to help people with cancer "thrive in the workplace." The web site offers advice, tools, support and information to help people balance their career and living with cancer.

After Zimmerman's diagnosis, and its encompassing treatment, she said good-bye to two clients but maintained one, Sprayology, “as a project to keep me focused,” she says. Through four months of chemotherapy and then radiation, Zimmerman kept working on the project. “People I worked with came to me and we put together a business plan,” she says. “We surrounded ourselves with a lot of activity. Thinking back on that summer, it was a godsend to have something to focus on that was not me.” Zimmerman admits that being able to set her own schedule and have people come to her made things much easier than if she had to report to a 9-5 job each day. “I was able to start a meeting at 10 instead of 8,” says Zimmerman. “I was honest with people. I told them when I needed help.”

Today, Zimmerman is considered cancer free and she’s still working on projects that excite her, including a new project with Oscar de la Renta. Her advice to anyone working while going through cancer treatment is two-fold: “Talk to others who are going through it,” says Zimmerman. “And be honest on the job. You don’t know how you’ll be affected and you don’t know what will happen. Tell your boss; work with your HR department. When it comes to working, the employee-company relationship is critical.”

NEXT: Emily Easter worked full time through five rounds of chemo

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