A hard-charging executive felt lost after surviving cancer because she didn’t fit into her old life. But, she says, “cancer changed my life, so I changed my world.”
Charlene Wheeless used to describe herself as the “typical type A personality.” That changed, however, after she was found to have breast cancer in February 2017 and had nine surgeries in three years.
When she left her corporate job, she didn’t know what she was going to do but then realized she had a story to tell.
She started off writing a blog, which quickly turned into her book, "You Are Enough!" Her book tells the story of lessons she has learned through her job, life and cancer journey.
Wheeless talked to Heal® about her cancer and survivorship journey and why she felt she had to write a book.
A: When I left the corporate world, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I didn’t know what I was going to do. I woke up one day and I thought, “I have an important story to tell and I need to figure out how to tell it.” So I started a blog called Just Between Us Girls, and in the blog I talked about the things that (happen) to you post cancer, the way you feel about your body, the people around you, your spouse, how you can become so insecure when that’s not something that you’re used to being. But when I was looking for resources to help me, I couldn’t really find anything, or I found (that) people were doing what I felt was sugarcoating the whole thing. I decided that someone needed to tell an authentic story. Literally, I woke up one day, and I said, “Oh, my gosh, I am being pulled to write a book.” ... It was a pull to tell the story, warts and all, so that I could perhaps help other people.
... I’ve been very open with my cancer. (When people found out that after the surgery) I had one and a half (breasts), all these different things, people started reaching out to me. And in many cases, I don’t know them, and they’ll ask, “I’ve just received a diagnosis. Can we talk?” And that’s been really rewarding, as well. Because of the book, I’ve been able to tell the story.
I also have the story of what it’s like being a Black female executive climbing the corporate ladder. The lessons I learned in doing that, which was really hard, are some of the same lessons I was able to apply to creating my new life as a patient post cancer, if there is such a thing — I think we’re kind of always a patient with cancer. But I suddenly understood how important my story was for other people to hear and to learn from, and just maybe their journey would be a little bit easier for them because they read the book. ... I wrote it in two months, which people tell me is an incredible amount of time to write a book. I’d never written one, so I didn’t know how long it takes. But I guess that’s just testament to how strong the pull was to write.
I think, both from a cancer perspective and from going through life as a Black female, there’s so much to unpack there. When I was younger in my career and I would go to sessions (at conferences), they’d have panels of really accomplished women. I was struggling in a world that was not built for me and I wanted to learn something from these women. And again, everybody kind of sugarcoated it. (They would say), “Oh, I didn’t experience blatant bias,” and I would walk away actually not feeling motivated and empowered but instead feeling, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I having this unique experience?”
And it was the same thing with cancer. It was, “Am I the only one who actually wants to kill herself after surviving breast cancer?” As I started to talk to other people, they gave me (the impression) that they maybe felt the same way but would never talk about it. These are topics that are just verboten — you don’t talk about them. I felt really strongly that I’m a fairly fearless person and somebody has to talk about this, right? I decided that person was going to be me, and the best way to do it was to put it in a book so that people could refer back to it. I could tell stories and give people examples and lessons that helped me create the life I have now.
(There is) a woman who used to work for me in London, who I’m still in touch with, who I love dearly. We had dinner in London one night, and she had been going through her own personal things. Afterward she sent me a note and said, “I was reading your blog, and when I started reading it I was crying for you, but when I finished reading it, I was crying for me, because I know how strong you are. And the fact that you were willing to be so vulnerable helped me to feel like I’m OK.” I thought, if I can do that for one person, then maybe I can do that for thousands of people. ... I believe that legacies are built by the people you touch along the way. I know now that time is finite, and you have an incredible sense of your own mortality when you’ve gone through something like this. My goal has been to touch as many people with my message as I possibly can.
I tell a story about the challenges of climbing that corporate ladder and what happens when you get to the end and ask yourself, “Well, what was it all for?” I managed to blend that with my cancer journey, some of the challenges there and the intersectionality.
As an example, one of the first things I wrote is that it’s choice, not chance, that changes your life. I think that applies to work and the situations we can find ourselves in at work. It also applies to dealing with a diagnosis, as well, and dealing with the disease. How you choose to approach that disease can make a really big difference.
I have a chapter about the importance of having a champion at work and being able to advocate for yourself. There’s no greater place to advocate for yourself, (no place more) crucial, than in the health care system. In each chapter is a strategy, both for life and for career. When people finish reading the book, they’ll realize that it may not be the exact same thing, but my story is their story. It kind of belongs to all of us. If I’ve done my job, they will walk away feeling empowered, somewhat fearless. (They will know) how to thrive and create the life they want, with purpose and passion and, most importantly, unapologetic authenticity. You don’t have to twist yourself into knots to fit someone’s ideal of who you are. If I could only deliver one message, it would be “You are enough.” So many of us walk around thinking that we don’t measure up. I want everybody to know that you are you, and it is enough.
There are so many. One of the things that I had to do, and this may sound a little strange, is I had to forgive myself for getting cancer. I think if you’re someone, particularly if you’re a type A personality, you think there’s something you did or didn’t do that caused you to get cancer, (such as) something that affected your immune system. I learned that I just needed to be easier on myself.
I also had to learn that not everybody knows how to have a friend who is sick. You need to give people some grace. I had friends who never came around when I was sick, and there were people I saw all the time. I had to ... allow them some grace and some understanding. But, certainly, there’s always room for humanity and compassion, and we should lead with those things.
I also learned, quite frankly, that there are people out there (in the workforce) who will subtly and not so subtly take advantage of your weakened state. My husband, Greg, said to me when I was getting ready to go back to work — a little bit of tough love here — “I know, you’ve been surrounded by people who have been all about you getting better and wanting to help and do everything they can for you, but when you go back into work, nobody cares that you had cancer and within a couple of weeks, no one’s even going to remember that you had cancer.” And I thought, well, that’s kind of a horrible way to think about things ... but I tell you what, he was 100% right. For people who have not had cancer or any kind of a disease who work with people that do, I just beg you to give them some grace and understand that, although they may look normal to you, they could be falling apart inside.
Now when I run into people who have had some kind of a disease or who are suffering from something, I just want to hug them and say, “You are OK. And if you don’t fit into your life that you used to have, you have permission to create another life.” That’s what I learned. I would have never thought that I’d be living the life that I am now. I would have never thought that I would write a book and that I would be on the speaking circuit talking about my life and my experience. But people appreciate and want authenticity, and they want to connect on a really human level, and you have to be willing to do that. There are a lot of people out there who might want to see you fail in the workplace, and, trust me, they’re out there. But there also are so many people who want to help and who want to be your champion, and you just have to let them. But that’s hard because we equate being vulnerable with being weak, right? It’s actually the opposite.
It was definitely coming out of it. Coming out of treatment, because I (felt that I) no longer fit into the life I had before. And I didn’t understand the life I was in. I’m such a strong person, I have such a strong sense of identity. And all of that was gone. It was kind of a harrowing experience because I would look in the mirror and I would see this person and I’d stare at her because I didn’t recognize her. I didn’t know who she was. And so it really started a journey of me trying to figure out who I was and how I was going to move forward in the world. One of the toughest parts was realizing that I couldn’t go back to my old life. I couldn’t be that hard-charging executive, type A personality, overachiever, all those things. I had a career as an executive, and I spent 33 years building that career. All of a sudden, it didn’t work anymore. So, I think that was really hard for me. I have two daughters who are now 27 and 25, and they handled it like champs. But I think I did them a big disservice because I think I put on too much of a brave front for them and it took a lot of energy to do that. I didn’t teach them the lesson that sometimes you’re not OK. And it’s all right not to be. You don’t always have to put on a brave face for everyone.
I tell them to not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do. We think that it’s a sign of weakness, but I think it’s really a sign of strength to ask people for help when you need it.
The other thing that I would say, which may sound a little strange, is be selfish. Really watch out for what you need and what’s important to you. I have lots of friends who wanted to visit when (I was) going through treatment because I didn’t work during my treatment. A lot of people wanted to visit me, and it was exhausting — I only had so much energy. I realized at some point that they were coming over, they cared about me, but when they came over, I had the responsibility to make sure they knew I was OK. It was more (like) your visitors are there to assuage their feelings as opposed to yours. It’s unintentional, of course, because everybody has good intentions. I just wish that I had been more selfish earlier, reserved my energy and told people, “Feel free to text, send me a note, whatever it is you want to do, an email, but not a visit.” I would tell people to be more selfish because your health is really important, your mental state, you have to manage your energy.
Wow. I say cancer changed my life, so I had to change my world. And it was realizing that the life I had built for 30-plus years, I no longer fit into it. I found that I just didn’t have the patience for some of the crap that we have to put up with. And I also learned that your time is finite, and you only have so much of it, so we should all think about how we channel that energy, how we use that energy. I’m a big believer in that if something negative happens to you, it’s your responsibility to turn that into a positive for someone else. Through cancer, I found a new voice to tell a really raw and honest and authentic story to help other people. If someone is struggling, and they read something I’ve written, I want them to say, “It’s OK to not be OK. Here was this person who is really strong, and she struggled, so it’s all right if I’m struggling.” I would say that cancer gave me an incredibly strong sense of purpose that I didn’t have before.
Regarding the journey, for most of us, you will get through this, and I say most because I’m just being honest. But for most of us, you will get through this no matter how hard it is. Give yourself a break, particularly talking about the career aspect. Again, I’m going to say, “You are enough.” I spent so much time trying to be whatever this company or this leader said I needed to be. I was thinking I’m not enough of this, I’m too much of that, I should be less of this, be more of this. ... So much happens that when you look up, you don’t even know who you are anymore. Fitting in is so important in the workplace; unfortunately, it’s like trying to squeeze your size 8 foot into a size 6 stiletto shoe. You’re going to get your foot in that shoe, but at some point it is going to reshape your foot into something you don’t recognize. You don’t have to do that. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out to be successful. Believe that we are enough, you are enough, every gift you bring to the table — whoever you are, your unique difference — you are enough. That’s what I want people more than anything else to walk away with from the book; believing that, not just saying it, but believing it.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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