What Does Managing a Merchandising Team Have to Do With Caretaking? For this Cancer Survivor, the Connection Lies Deep in Empathy

Caring Conversation — Marga Franklin

After graduating from the University of Vermont in 2010, Marga Franklin moved west to pursue a career in the outdoor industry. Now, with nearly a decade’s experience under her belt, Marga’s made a name for herself in the merchandising and marketing realm, climbing the ranks every year for her longtime employer, the online outdoor retailer Backcountry.

Julia: What is your caregiving experience, right now and in the past?

Marga: Right now, I spend a week every month taking care of my Mom … I live in Utah, and she’s in North Carolina. She was diagnosed with a grade four glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer in June of 2015. Her cancer makes her susceptible to intense seizures that can happen any time, so we make sure she has around-the-clock care and she’s never on her own. We have a rotating calendar of family and close friends who take turns going to North Carolina, to spend a week with her, and everyone helps out. However, my aunt, my mom’s best friend, and myself are the ones who manage most of the day-to-day and help her make important decisions.

After a few brain surgeries, and due to the location of her tumor, my mom’s vision is pretty limited. She has almost no vision in her right eye, and the left side can be pretty distorted. The chemotherapies she’s on have also affected her mobility, so she uses a wheelchair. Caretaking duties include laundry, grocery shopping, driving to and from doctors appointments, paying bills, filling and picking up prescriptions, making sure she gets time in with her buddies at the gym, cooking meals, answering phone calls and text messages, all of it. Her cancer has affected her memory pretty severely, so short term memories are something she has a difficult time forming … things like passwords, appointments times, or even if she’s taken her meds are all duties of her caretakers.

My dad was also just diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer. It’s in his duodenum, specifically, which is very rare and difficult to treat. My time spent with him is different than with my mom because he’s still able to do most things on his own. He lives in Rhode Island, so when I go there it’s usually to just spend quality time with him and give his wife some much needed R&R. I drive him to his appointments and hang out with him while he’s getting chemotherapy. We have our own little routine together. We do things like go for walks, watch movies, listen to music, or make food … that can be all he needs. Support in the emotional sense.

Both of my parents were really there for me when I was going through cancer myself. I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on January 11, 2015 at age 27. I had a pretty rigorous 6 month chemo regimen and it took about a year for me to feel even slightly normal again. Having gone through cancer myself, I feel like I can best-empathize with my parents; my knowledge lets me anticipate what they might need, or what they can expect.

I’ve been able to use my experience with cancer to help my parents better deal with their illnesses as well. In some ways, it’s practical stuff, like, telling them what foods you are and aren’t allowed to eat or what anti-nausea medications worked best for me. I also did acupuncture, massage therapy, and yoga almost every week, and my parents have also adopted these habits. My dad does yoga, massage, and acupuncture and made it a priority to stay active in his book club and go to as many concerts as he feels up for. He has even taken on a little personal project restoring one of the Japanese Gardens in his community. My mom actually goes to the gym almost everyday! She used to run marathons, and since she can’t really walk, now she rides the stationary bike. She also does Reiki massage, and has a community of friends at the Duke Cancer Institute. Having other things in your life that bring you back down to earth is so important. I’m proud of the attitudes my parents have chosen to adopt and how committed they’ve been to making their lives about more than their illnesses.

What is your professional background? Your field of expertise?

I have almost ten years’ experience in the outdoor industry working in marketing and merchandising, but currently, I’m working in merchandising for Backcountry.com, an online outdoor retail company. I became the manager of my department almost 2 years ago, a few months after coming back to work after I was done with chemotherapy. We manage all of the merchandising inputs for our websites’ major marketing campaigns as well as the day-to-day maintenance of products on our sites.

How have your professional skills and perspectives influenced or impacted your caregiving efforts?

My career has taught me so much about management, organization, communication, and prioritization. The skills I’ve garnered as a manager in a big company have definitely translated to my caretaking. Work taught me how to be truly organized, stay calm in the crazy, and to operate as a team. Because my mom has memory issues, it’s sometimes hectic and difficult to know what’s going on if you’re not physically there; knowing the right questions to ask is important, as well as knowing the right place to go to get the answer … that’s one thing I do at work on a daily basis that I’ve adopted into my efforts as a caretaker.

Research is another big thing. I created a long list of in-depth questions and contingency plans when my mom was diagnosed. It really helped me and my family see the full scope of what we could expect in the following weeks, months, and potentially years. This helped us with planning and making sure we could make good long-term decisions that, ultimately, have really positively affected my mom’s reality.

How has your caregiving experience informed your professional life?

Caring for my parents has had profound effects on me professionally. Between my personal and my professional life, I have a high amount of stress on a daily basis. I’ve had to find different ways to cope with it, and being a caretaker has really taught me how to focus on the bigger picture. That mentality has had a halo effect for me at work. I’m able to rationalize problems and see them through multiple lenses, which has increased my ability to work cross-functionally. It’s also allowed me to really slow down so I can effectively develop and coach a team, which is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Sometimes, when you have to make medical decisions, or help make medical decisions for someone else, you don’t always get your way. For example, deciding what experimental drugs were right for my mom was tough, we had multiple options and they all have different side effects. The ability to make a group decision and then hop on board and follow through with that plan, even if it’s not what you would have done personally, is something everyone has to deal with professionally. It’s now much easier for me to provide inputs or opinions at work, but hop on board with a group decision, because I don’t take it personally. I know we’re all trying to make the decision that’s going to give us the best outcome.

People are innately going to have different approaches to solving problems … that’s one thing I’ve learned through all of this. Being on a rotating schedule with my mom it’s really interesting to see how all of her caretakers operate differently. Applying this understanding professionally has helped me be a better manager and develop my team members because I give them ownership to get to the right answers in a way that works for them.

The outdoor industry is a very passion-driven business, and that sentiment definitely applies to me: I love what I do. My parents both had careers they were immersed in and passionate about, and they impressed on me how important continuing your professional development is, despite life’s roadblocks. Caretaking for them inspired me to join the Women’s Leadership Coalition Council, an internal group of women who are dedicated to developing and retaining women who work in the outdoor industry. I also reached out to a woman on our leadership team recently, our Director of Product and Technology, to be my mentor. Being a caretaker for my parents prompted me to take steps professionally, so it feels less like the challenges I face outside of work don’t halt my life in a professional sense. I often find that my mentor’s advice, while professionally intended, translates into my personal life.

What one piece of advice would you give someone who found themselves in similar caregiving situations?

It’s important that you take care of yourself, because you can’t take care of someone else if that isn’t happening first. That’s definitely advice that I need to apply to myself more often. But when I’ve done that, I’ve been happier and better at taking care of the people I want be there for in my life.

It may be easier said than done, but recognizing if you’re overwhelmed is important to everyone around you. When I get that way, I know I need to take moment and go to yoga or for a long hike. When it becomes obvious that I’m unhappy, it goes from being a bad situation for me, to being a bad situation for my parents. It’s important to remember that being happy is a conscious decision, and it reflects onto those around you. Even when you’re facing so much, choose happiness. Do what makes you tick. It’s worth it.

Interviewed: 3 October 2018, by Julia Rubano

Click here for more Caring Conversations