Skip Navigation

Integrating Life and Work

By Christianna McCausland
Ginger Hanson is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
In 2015, Ginger Hanson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following a mastectomy, the 43-year-old mother of two underwent six months of chemotherapy, placing her in the position of managing her health with the demands of work and family.

Hanson knows a thing or two about integrating life and work: She’s an occupational health psychologist, which means she researches and develops ways to improve the physical and psychological health of employees by reducing workplace stressors. Nothing is more stressful than having a serious illness or injury upend your life. Hanson wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout her own treatment, and her recovery made her reflect on not only her work but also the lifestyle choices that she most valued. Hanson is now developing a program to help supervisors support employees who have a serious illness or injury.

Work-life integration isn't easy for any of us. How do you practice what you teach?

Working with students I employ, I don't expect them to answer emails on weekends or at night unless that’s their preference. I model good behavior. If I need to take time to help my son, I don’t make up an “acceptable” excuse. An acceptable excuse is, “I need time off because I’m sick.” It’s considered unacceptable to say, “I need time for my child.” If people need flexibility, they should get it.

How did cancer impact your work-life balance?

I couldn’t stop being a mother or working. I had to let go of things, like housework, so I could reserve strength for helping my kids and shielding them from how bad I felt. I took off time after surgery, and I took days off when I had doctor visits. The symptoms of the chemotherapy got worse over three days and then they’d get better, so I tried to schedule it so the worst days would be over a weekend.

How did your professional background inform your experience?

I knew it would be important to get my supervisor on board, and I was fortunate to have a supportive one. Some choose to keep something like this secret. I never encourage or discourage someone from telling an employer, but in the cases where you don't, it’s important to have a support outside the workplace.

Your co-workers, trying to be helpful, took work off your plate without telling you, and you found that stressful. How can the workplace balance an individual’s need to be treated “normally” with the concessions required for treatment?

Different people like different supports. Studies show that giving the wrong support is as detrimental as giving no support, so it’s important to ask your employee: How can we help you?

Your children are now 10 and 8; how did you talk to them about your cancer?

You can’t tell them everything’s going to be OK when it might not be. I reassured them that if something happened, their dad was there for them. Our church congregation had lost a woman to breast cancer, so I was able to tell them that if the worst happened, there’s a whole community there to care for you. I had to be open and explain that mommy might be tired and to respect if I needed rest. At the time I lost my hair, my daughter was going through a stage of understanding the expectation that women be beautiful. She was very worried for me that I’d be ugly. I had to help her realize it was OK to be yourself and go through what you have to go through. I tried to make it fun. Before I lost my hair, we dyed our hair pink and had a mohawk party and everyone came with funky hair and wigs. That cheered us up.

You are a family cyclist who eschews cars for bikes. How did you make that work?

That was a work-life balance intervention in itself. I’ve always enjoyed working out, but as a working parent I couldn’t find time to get to the gym. One day a friend met us at the park and she had her kids with her on this cargo bike and I thought, “Perhaps this is what I’ve been looking for.” It was important that I keep up the biking because it was important for me to still feel strong, and without it I would have lost some of what makes me unique. My doctors were supportive. If you have a high level of fitness, the chances are good that you can maintain some of that during treatment. If you work out or even have a hobby like knitting, try to maintain it to the best of your ability.

How did you return to “normal” after treatment?

Within a few weeks of finishing chemotherapy I was back to my normal energy level. It took me about six months after my mastectomy to feel like my work wardrobe was where I felt comfortable with my body and the transformations it had gone through. I suggest asking your provider about local stores that carry prostheses and bras for mastectomy patients, and there are online resources that can be very helpful for busy moms who don’t have time to shop for clothes to accommodate body changes.

There is a transition after you finish treatment that other survivors warned me about. While you are experiencing treatment, you are surrounded by a network of caring family, friends, and medical professionals. When you finish it, this attention drops off rapidly. Many people struggle with this transition, and it was very helpful for me to be warned ahead of time. Ask your caregiver if there are any post-treatment support groups you can join. I have attended groups like this and found them helpful.

Ginger Hanson portrait
Montse Bernal

Other Featured Articles

  • Reading the Trees
    The giant sequoia and the California redwood live thousands of years and can reach the height of a skyscraper, but climate change threatens to topple these mighty trees.
  • Watch Me Go
    Wearable trackers are a billion dollar industry with devices capable of monitoring everything from sleep to heartbeats. Editor—and marathon runner—Greg Rienzi took one for a spin to see if a high-tech gadget really makes you more fit.
  • The Vagina Dialogues
    The women's health questions you were afraid—or never knew—to ask.
  • The Case Against Antibiotics
    Think you need that penicillin? Think again: Up to 50 percent of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, and decades of overuse have led to a spike in superbugs and a global public health crisis.