When facing a health challenge, ask for what you need

Curly haired woman with glasses smiles In the summer of 2016, I had been working at Mead & Hunt for about a year. After getting my master’s degree in 2015 with a focus on architectural history, I found an internship here as part of our Cultural Resources team, which turned into a full-time job evaluating historic properties across the United States. That summer we were working on a project about the industrial architecture of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I was learning a lot in the process. I had no inkling of how much my life was about to change.

One afternoon while at my desk I absently rested my hand on my chest and felt a mass under my skin. Within a few weeks, I had a diagnosis: Breast Cancer, Stage III. As a healthy 27-year-old at the beginning of my working life, it was hard to believe at first. I couldn’t understand why this would happen to me. Then I learned that in the U.S. approximately 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point, and more than 12,000 women under 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Instead of thinking, “why me?” I started to think, “why not me?”

A big concern of mine right away was how this would affect my budding career. My treatment plan involved major surgery followed by five months of chemotherapy and then six weeks of radiation. Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded: my team could not have been more supportive, and my doctors encouraged me to continue working as I felt able. I pulled back from heavy duty, hands-on fieldwork and took on more writing projects that I could do at my desk or from home. I had a flexible schedule and took time off for treatments, doctor’s appointments, support groups, and naps.

woman in black glasses and purple wrap undergoing chemoBy April 2017 I had a clean bill of health and, thankfully, my cancer has shown no signs of returning since. And my career is thriving as well! In the past three years, I’ve completed projects from Idaho to North Carolina and taken on increasing responsibility.

This challenge has not stopped me—in fact, having breast cancer has given me a better understanding of the health challenges many people must balance in their working lives. I have navigated short-term and long-term disability, coordinated medical leaves around surgeries, and learned to listen to my body and advocate for accommodations I need in my day-to-day work. I think this last piece can be especially hard as a woman; it can be difficult to admit when you need help. I’m still not perfect, but I know it is essential when my health is at stake.

As part of Mead & Hunt’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative I recently became the head of the Disabilities Committee. My own experience has given me invaluable insight as I help coworkers dealing with medical conditions get the support they need to do their jobs. In the end, I found that was what I needed most after my breast cancer diagnosis: to do my work the best I could, while leaning on my team and my company for support when I needed it.

Angela Hronek

About the Author

Angela Hronek is an architectural historian with a passion for historic preservation. Her areas of interest include post-World War II roadside architecture, GIS mapping, and histories of underrepresented groups. When not conducting historic resource surveys and evaluations for projects, you can find her making improvements to her own 100-year-old house.

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