Working Through It

A guide to battling breast cancer while managing your career.

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Lehman Brothers. When we hear of rich corporate giants going down, it's easy to forget that these are institutions where thinking, feeling human beings work. People who face the same problems we all must deal with. I was reminded of a story I did last year about a woman who battled breast cancer and how that company responded.

Her story may help people navigating through this devastating disease find the strength to hold onto their careers and move forward with their lives.

Meet Hannah

As managing director of corporate communications at Lehman Brothers, you can imagine Hannah Burns' relief when the company reported its quarterly earnings in June 2005. Getting the figures out to the public was, and still is, one of her main job responsibilities. Instead of going into her boss' office to report on the earnings coverage, however, she had to sit him down and deliver the most difficult news of her life.

"I've got good news and bad news," she told him. "The good news is that it's early and very treatable, the bad news is that I have breast cancer."

Burns describes herself as a private person, but she went straight to her boss' office when her doctor delivered the news over the phone. "Being in my function I can't just disappear and not tell anybody. I just wanted to get it off of my chest and move on. It was an easy conversation. He was incredibly sympathetic and shocked."

This mother of two daughters had her disease detected early, so she thought that she would be able to "get it off of her chest and move on." The next few months, however, would prove to be a physical and emotional challenge that she could not have imagined.

Three weeks later, there was the surgery, which was followed by a rigorous four-month period of chemotherapy and bone-marrow shots, and then seven weeks of radiation. In a feat that can be described as nothing short of heroic, aside from a one-week recovery period after surgery, Hannah only missed one day of work throughout her four months of treatments.

"In addition to wanting to teach my daughters a lesson on how to work through adversity, the firm was so supportive that I wanted to do my absolute best to show my gratitude," says Burns. "The firm said do whatever you need to do to get well. Knowing you've got that support is half the battle."

Not only did Lehman provide Burns with inspiration, but the firm also gave her the flexibility to work through her challenge. She had her treatments on Wednesdays, did not have to return to work, and she was able to come in late on Thursdays. Burns says her worst side effects set in on Friday afternoons, and Lehman allowed her to leave in the afternoon. The company also provided her with a car service to and from the office throughout the entire ordeal.

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