“A lot of people don’t see Autoimmune as a disability”
Holly Bertone is a breast cancer and Hashimoto’s survivor who turned these two significant health challenges as a passion to help others. She is a bestselling author who wrote the book, “Thriving in the Workplace with Autoimmune Disease”, which educates individuals with an autoimmune disease on their legal and disability rights in the workplace.
On this episode, she shares her devastating diagnosis and experiences that led her to her desire to help other people to not go through the same misfortune. She talks about the rights of those who are going through health challenges in their workplace. She explains what FMLA is and who to call for help when your employer denies you of your rights.
Listen to episode 95 on iTunes here or subscribe on your favorite podcast app.
95: Show Notes
Dr. Veronica Anderson’s Links:
1:33 – The life-shattering diagnosis
3:40 – What led her to the disease?
7:50 – Emotional trigger
11:39 – Stress
14:45 – Exiting her high-paying job
21:13 – Contents of her book
22:01 – Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
23:54 – Learning your rights
26:00 – Organizations that could help you fight for those rights
29:17 – Holly’s recommendations
Female VO: Welcome to the Wellness Revolution Podcast.
Dr. Veronica: Dr. Veronica here, medical intuitive, doctor, Wellness for the Real World, Wellness Revolution with Holly Bertone today. And we’re going to talk about autoimmune disease and breast cancer all in one. And Holly Bertone is a best-selling author, pinkfortitude.com is her website. You know I like to get everything upfront out and will say it again.
Holly Bertone has a journey that you want to hear, and it’s not just about what was going on physically, it’s about what was going on spiritually and emotionally, and then how she has continued on her journey and had some recovery. Holly, welcome to the Wellness Revolution Podcast.
Holly: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoy being here and I’m looking forward to connecting with all of your viewers.
Dr. Veronica: Thank you. Let’s start right in with your journey. You’ve had two really big illnesses that a lot of people have today, breast cancer which is just all over the place and nobody knows when it’s going to strike. And then autoimmune disease which is the same thing, it seems like every other person today has either breast cancer or autoimmune disease. And then we’ve hit 95% of the female population in America.
Dr. Veronica: What’s going on here? Let’s start with your journey from the beginning. You first were diagnosed with…
Holly: I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I was a bit of a junkaholic. I enjoyed my sweets in high school and college. But then on my 30’s I became an athlete. I raced XTerra races and mountain bike races. I was fairly healthy in my 30’s.
I was actually diagnosed with breast cancer on my 39th birthday. I know it was happy birthday to me. Most girls want a nice pair of earrings. But my gift from god was breast cancer and that was okay. But interestingly, two days later my then boyfriend proposed. In the 48 hours I had “you have breast cancer” and “will you marry me” and it was just craziness from there on out. And we got married 10 days after my treatment ended.
But I went through surgery, chemo, and radiation in about nine months. It was a stage 1b. They went through a pretty aggressive treatment with me to make sure that everything was blasted out.
The good news is that everything was blasted out. The bad news was that it left a lot of latent damage. One year later I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, which is an autoimmune thyroid condition. And you have hyperthyroid and hypothyroid. I like to say my thyroid went to sleep and so did I. That’s pretty much what happened with my Hashimoto’s diagnosis one year later.
Dr. Veronica: Let’s go back a bit in your history, because I know people when they hear breast cancer, when they hear thyroid diseases, some basic knowledge that they want to know. Anybody else has breast cancer in your family, or were you one of the people who were found to have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer?
Holly: They did all the genetic test and I was negative across the board. There’s no breast cancer in my family, and not a lot of cancer, period. My doctor said, the way that she described it was that lightning hit. She says sometimes these things just happen. And at the time I took that as gospel.
When you’re hit with such a huge diagnosis you need an answer. You need to know the why. And that comforted me for quite a few years. But just within the last year or two I’m realizing that there are a lot of other factors that go into it. That lightning really didn’t hit, probably a lot of dietary and environmental factors that went into play.
But interestingly enough with the Hashimoto’s my mother has Addison’s disease, which is a very rare autoimmune disease. Her adrenal glands don’t work. She was actually diagnosed when she was pregnant with me. I’m right now learning about epigenetics, and I’m sure you can probably speak a lot more intelligently than I can to that. But coming at it with that genetic predisposition and having those genetics, but then having environmental factors, really putting everything into place to make it happen.
A lot of people that I talk to with Hashimoto’s, there’s some kind of trauma that happens. For me the cancer and the chemo I think was that trauma that really put it over the top.
Dr. Veronica: Okay. We have to go back a little bit before that though because something triggers cancer. [Unintelligible 00:05:57] also. We all are prone to it because cancer cells go barren in our body, and everybody knows this piece of information.
There are some people who have the genetic predisposition, but there are a lot of those people with genetic predisposition who do not get cancer. And the majority of people who get cancer don’t necessarily have a genetic predisposition. That we can talk about.
There’s this field, epigenetics, where we know that diseases can be turned on and off. Something triggers that disease to be turned on and off, and we talk about environmental factors like toxins, and heavy metals, and food, and all that other type of stuff.
But for those of us, like me as a medical intuitive and an energy practitioner, we understand that that’s the simple answer. The harder answer is what spiritually and emotionally triggered the cancer? What spiritually and emotionally triggered the Hashimoto’s?
In your mother, yes, she has this diagnosis of Addison’s disease, but we know now, we see people with Alzheimer’s who died and their brain doesn’t look like it has Alzheimer’s. And yet we see people who were lucid their whole life, and they die and their brain looks like crap.
Something spiritual and emotional was happening. And we heard about the happy part of your life where you got married. But there’s something else that was going on. Can you shed any light upon that? Because I think that’s when people are able to make the breakthrough.
When they’re able to admit something and face something they realize, “This is what happened. All these other things were there but there was this trigger that made all those things.” Like we’re all exposed to Lyme disease. We’re all exposed to molds yet we all don’t have Lyme disease and molds.
What do you feel was your spiritual and emotional call to action let’s call it. Come to Jesus moment. People have different religions out there, but what was that thing that said, “Okay, you’re not dealing with that. So we’re going to give you a really big, nasty disease because we want it in your face.”
You heal from that big, nasty disease but you’re not quite dealing with it so here’s another big, nasty disease. What’s going on? What do you think?
Holly: I don’t have the answer for that. I can only share where I was at. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know if I can pinpoint. But interestingly I was married for the first time around very young. I went through a divorce very young and moved from Pennsylvania to the Washington, DC metro area.
So it was a kind of a chance to start my life over so to say. And I really just threw myself into work, into success, into climbing the corporate ladder, and then also into athletics.
I was a straight A student in school. I always had that drive for success and that drive for perfection. That’s where I was at those 10 years before the cancer hit was that I think I was very, very happy. I think I was very driven. I was very career-focused. I was very athletic. I was racing XTerra’s.
And even in the first book that I wrote I talk about before my husband Carter, before we met I just thought life was perfect. And then I meet this man and he has this kid. I never really saw my life take that direction. Not only did I get hit with cancer but I got hit with a family too.
After the last seven years or so, just going through all the health challenges that I’ve been through, realizing that I’m now really fulfilling my true purpose in life. It wasn’t about climbing the corporate ladder and making the money, and being out there racing all the time, it’s about waking up every day and giving back and inspiring others. I don’t know if I have a big traumatic event that kind of set it off, but that was where I was at.
Dr. Veronica: It’s interesting because your book now is about working with an autoimmune disease. You got to hold up the book so we could see it. What’s the name of the book? Thriving in the Workplace with Autoimmune Disease. And so some of the pieces that I’m going to pick out of your story are one about… ask the question, what happened before? Because there’s always this anti scenes is what we call them that trigger what’s happening in your health.
And so you had this marriage before. Now we’re hearing about the happy marriage, but marriage before… And I certainly understand. I was married before. Although the marriage ended there were a lot of happy years, but it was very traumatic when it ended. And I can tell you, during that time was when the time where I got multiple cavities and ended up with root canal and then an implant in my mouth after lots of years of having healthy teeth. I didn’t get Hashimoto’s but I got something in my mouth, having to do with communication and expressing myself.
Is there anything that you feel was unresolved in your last marriage, or unresolved in your life purpose and career. Because we’re talking now and I never interview corporate people. So I met you through a different means that was full of entrepreneurs, not corporate. Was there something in the previous marriage journey or the corporate journey that was making you feel like, “I’m not quite where I need to be in life.” And that could’ve been some of the issues that were triggering you getting these really serious illnesses.
Holly: I don’t know necessarily the marriage. We were young and it was only for a couple of years. It just wasn’t meant to be. But from the corporate perspective, very much as a driver and climbing the corporate ladder in my organization, I was a contractor and then worked full-time at a federal agency. I ended up being hired on as a chief of staff, which is a pretty prominent position.
And I just think that thriving on that stress and thriving on that drive of being in a prestigious federal agency in Washington, DC, and being around people who are making a lot of really good things happen. I can’t say that caused the cancer but I was definitely on that path of just trying to really push myself career-wise.
Dr. Veronica: And when did you jump out of that?
Holly: About a few months ago, April.
Dr. Veronica: Wow, very recent.
Holly: Yes, very recent, which is how the book came to be.
Dr. Veronica: And so do you feel different being outside of corporate? Because not only was it corporate, it was government. That just works different than anything. The morass and the rules that go along with that are… For those of us outside of it, when we see it are maddening. Nothing makes sense to those who are outside of government. When you want to do something it’s like, “How do I do this?”
Now you’ve jumped and you’re on the other side. How does that feel?
Holly: We can get into this a little bit later. But the last nine months or so at my position was just really, really traumatic. The Hashimoto’s had a really bad flare-up. And just dealing with a management that was not cooperative.
I was at a point where I was almost in the hospital for a very long time. Fortunately I made some decisions to get out at the right time. My health when I left was pretty much at rock-bottom. And it only took a couple of weeks later I was feeling much better.
I’m still recovering. I’m not where I want to be, but just being able to really focus on my business and writing and my book, and just being home, focusing on my health, focusing on my family, I’ve never felt more at peace. I know for a fact that this is where I need to be. I need to be home. I need to be here for my health. I need to be here for my family. And to wake up every single day and just have that drive to be able to help and inspire other people. It’s been a true game changer.
Dr. Veronica: What gave you the courage to make the leap? Because I know there are a lot of people who were saying, “I would like to do something else. How do I do it? What gave you that courage? Did you plan it? Did you just say, “One day I’m just getting out of here.” How did you do that?
Holly: It was always kind of an end goal at some point to be able to work from home. Financially we weren’t ready at all. I was making a six-figure salary and had a pretty decent position. And the management at my job had changed. Seven years prior when I had cancer they rolled out the red carpet for me in terms of helping me and just making sure with accommodations to make sure I could still come to work, I could still function, but be able to take care of myself. And just this huge level of empathy with the cancer diagnosis.
But with the Hashimoto’s, I was having a flare-up, and the management didn’t understand. And it not just that they didn’t understand, but they did everything that they could to go against anything that would be helpful for me, so any kind of accommodations, things like that. My FMLA was actually revoked, which is illegal.
Dr. Veronica: What is FMLA?
Holly: It’s Family Medical Leave Act.
Dr. Veronica: It was revoked?
Holly: Yeah. It’s a law. I think if you’re over 50 employees you have that in an organization. I was actually entitled to 480 hours of sick leave basically through… They made such a fuss about me being out of work to go for treatments and to get my health back in order that they ended up revoking it. I think that was the straw on the camel’s back.
It was a really hard decision to go from a six-figure salary to zero. It’s hard. The DC metro area is not cheap to live. My husband makes good money but it still is a really, really hard decision. It was momentarily hard on the marriage. We got through it easily but it wasn’t a decision that came easy.
And my health just kept declining and declining. And I knew that if I stayed on this path that I would end up in the hospital for a long period of time. That was the push. This is the writing on the wall. And this is my time to exit gracefully.
Dr. Veronica: And it’s interesting now, like you said, I’ve never been more at peace, because you described having a really traumatic exit from your position. Although you were in a position you’re in a family where your husband’s making good money, I’m sure still your finances were based on using your money a lot in it too.
And so you’re like, “How are we going to manage everything that we’re managing. And people say, “You got a lot of money and so therefore it’s not a big deal.” Except your lifestyle is scaled up usually. Everybody scales their lifestyle to how much money they have generally.
Yes, DC, is crazy expensive, from somebody who spends part of her life in Manhattan i think DC is crazy more expensive area than even Manhattan. You can find pockets where you can get really good deal. It’s challenging in that area just the way it’s set-up.
You decided to make the leap because it’s almost like you were pushed and there was just no choice, and you had to figure out how to fly. And you figured out to fly. And that’s amazing to see that you’ve been able to do it, and then have such a high-level of energy and spirit.
Even though I know you’re talking about your illness and you’re not where you want to be, but to interact with you and see your high level of energy and spirit now so close to when it happened is a testament to your inner strength. It really is.
Holly: Thank you. There was one night that we were on the coach. My husband looked at me and he said, and this was throughout the whole process. He goes, “Your health and your countenance are worst now than during your worst times during chemo.”
And that hit like a ton of bricks. Can you imagine being any sicker than going through chemo? That’s like the epitome of being sick. And so him saying that was huge.
And also I felt like I was failing. I felt like I was failing at my job. I felt like I was failing at my company. I’m sorry. I’m getting a little emotional. And it was a really hard decision. But I also knew that autoimmune is one of those diseases that they called an invisible illness. And I really wanted to step up, and despite how I felt tell that story so that other people don’t have to go through what I did or have a better time. And give them the accommodations. Talk to them about the laws.
I’m not an attorney. I’m not a legal advisor. I did my research and I had some people help me with the research. It’s a baseline. Here’s the basic information that you need to know. And to really be able to help other people with autoimmune disease saying, “Hey, I need a full-time job. I can’t afford to quit. Here are some accommodations that you can ask for. Here are some of the laws that can back you to help you balance your health while at work and at home.” Because for most of us we’re not just about our jobs, we have to come home to our families still.
Dr. Veronica: As a result of you going through this really challenging time it made it so that you were able to write this book to help other people who are going through this challenging time, or not particularly ready to make the leap. What are some of the tips that you give people?
You got a whole book, and I would say the people read the whole because it’s very intricate. But give us a couple of… you’re talking about Family Medical Leave Act and all that. Most people, they don’t even know what it is. They don’t think about it. Give us a little background about the family Medical Leave Act.
Holly: The book’s divided into three sections. The first section goes into my story in full, gory detail. The second part is all of the legal stuff. The second part deals with the FMLA, EEO, what is a disability, is autoimmune even considered a disability, things like that.
I kind of tease the middle part of the book is about as dry as gluten-free bread, but it’s necessary to know. And these are your legal rights. And then the final part of the book is resources in terms of how do you go about it. Should I tell my employer? What accommodations are out there for me, things like that. That’s how the book is divided up.
And in a nutshell the Family Medical Leave Act is designed so that if you are ill or if you are taking care of an ill family member, whether it’s a child or a parent, or things like I think even adoption and childbirth fall under it as well. You have to provide all the documentation but you’re legally entitled to leave, and you have to be granted the exact same position but a similar position, the same salary whenever you come back. It can be intermittent. It can all at once. There’s a lot of flexibility around it to help individuals deal with their life crisis.
Dr. Veronica: I know the act is there. When you said it I was like, “Oh yeah, that.” As an entrepreneur we don’t know about a lot of these things sometimes. However, one of my concerns in hearing your story is that it’s not being used because there’s fear of using it still. Even though it’s there and it’s a law we’re hearing an ugly story about what happened to you.
Is there a process that you recommend that people could go through to make it easier? Because I think people are going to be fearful to go in and ask for it. Mark Zuckerberg can ask for it because he’s running the company.
But you think, “Here I am in an organization.” There are a lot of women who are high performing in organizations where there are a lot of men. And you get looked down upon or feel like you’re going to lose everything that you work for if you do step out and engage in radical self-care is what you need to do when you’re healing from a big illness.
Holly: What I found is that despite the laws that are out there to protect not just me but everyone, my organization still found a way around it. I actually interviewed an unnamed government source I think is how it’s officially designated, where they talk about the jerk defense, and how organizations can…
If someone decides to retaliate against you they talk about how organizations from a legal perspective can back it and say, “It’s not being discriminatory. The boss is just being a jerk. And he’s or she’s a jerk to everyone.” That was interesting.
There’s a section in the book I talk. It’s kind of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I put it in there because I didn’t want to scare people. But life isn’t always puppies and rainbow kisses. It’s reality. Honestly, good bosses, and good managers, and good-hearted people are always going to be good-hearted people. And they’re going to want to look out for their employees. And they’re going to want to take care of their employees. And little things to help them get through their situation they’re going to want to do.
I had three years of really good managers who I didn’t even have to have anything on the books in terms of medically on the books. They just were able to accommodate as needed. But jerk managers are always going to be jerks.
I think that’s not just your situation but who are you working for too. What’s the environment like in your organization? What is your manager or supervisor like? What’s happened to other people in similar situations? Like I said, those rights are out there and their yours, but there’s still the reality.
Dr. Veronica: Are there organizations that can help people, advocate for themselves, or anything like that?
Holly: Yes. Interestingly enough I tried to call I think it was the EEO office and a couple of other ones, and just was on hold forever. This was the government office. But interestingly the one that I got through to, and I found that there’s not a lot of resources out there.
But the big one that I found is called askjan.org. They have been absolutely amazing. Not only did they pick up right away, but they talked to me, they answered my questions. They called me back. Who does that? They just called me back to check in.
I was fortunate enough. Because they fall under the department of labor so they can’t officially endorse my book. However, they gave me a ton of information, a huge interview with one of their advocates that I was able to incorporate a lot of good pieces of advice that they offer. And their organization is there not just for individuals with autoimmune but for actually any kind of disability.
And that was the big thing too, a lot of people don’t see autoimmune as a disability. But technically it is.
Dr. Veronica: Yeah, people can get really very sick and debilitated. They do not have a name to it. You have to name to yours which makes it even harder because you’re going around. And it’s difficult for you to verbalize what’s wrong in the terminology that we use, the normal medical establishment uses and the everyday person understands.
Most people with these type of issues, it’s hard to name exactly what they have. You can have a constellation of symptoms that are going on that are making their life extremely difficult. However, it doesn’t have necessarily a name.
Holly: And for me the chronic fatigue was the big symptom. Chronic fatigue unless you have it, how do you describe to someone how tired you are? It’s like, “Just drink some coffee or get some more sleep. I was up with the kids last night, I’m tired too.” That’s a little different. So also that education part too.
Dr. Veronica: Part one is your story. Part two is the legal. And did you say there’s part three?
Holly: Part three is the resources. Basically, what accommodations are out there, how do you ask your boss, should you, and if you do how do you go to your boss. I’ve got the websites, the phone numbers, and all the different resources. Even some mop language as well that they can use. If there’s paperwork to be filled out there’s some mop language for people to use.
Dr. Veronica: Once you get into it, when you’re not being treated correctly… I heard about askjan, but a way to protect yourself or document, how do you recommend people today? Do you recommend start an email trail? Just so that when people are not treated the best they can be treated there’s some recourse.
Holly: I recommend documenting everything, either CC, or BCC yourself on every single email. Keep a file in your email box for all of your information. Everything from communication with your boss, to assignments that you’ve done, your medical records obviously, keep diligent records at home.
I actually had a spreadsheet of all of my leaves. So I basically had the day, the amount of hours, and then what it was four, whether it was I needed to take a couple of hours off to do something at my stepson’s school or something like that, or was it a doctor’s appointment, or was I home sick. Keep very, very diligent records of everything.
And that’ll help you put together, worst case scenario, if you need a case that’ll help you put everything together.
Dr. Veronica: I interview a lot of people and sometimes I believe that they had their journey or struggle because that had to happen so they would be the advocate for everybody else to get the word out. You have a story where it’s just like if you didn’t go through that there wouldn’t be this book there that helps other people navigate these difficult times. You got to hold up the book again.
Holly: This is the first book ever that talks about autoimmune-specific in terms of disability rights and workplace accommodations. And it’s just such an important message to put out there because I think it’s going to help a lot of people cope. Like you said, not just the physical aspect of the illness but you have this spiritual, social, and emotional. You got to work too and make money. And you got to be able to balance everything.
Dr. Veronica: Thriving in the Workplace with Autoimmune Disease.
Holly: Yes, it’s on amazon.com.
Dr. Veronica: Wonderful. And the website, pinkfortitude.com.
Holly: Yes, pinkfortitude.com
Dr. Veronica: Wonderful, Holly Bertone, thank you so much for being on the show.
Holly: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to be here. And I appreciate you helping me to get the word out about such an important topic.
Female VO: Thank you for listening to the Wellness Revolution Podcast. If you want to hear more on how to bring wellness into your life visit drveronica.com. See you all next week. Take care.
Dr. Veronica Anderson is an MD, Functional Medicine Practitioner, Homeopath. and Medical Intuitive. As a national speaker and designer of the Functional Fix and Rejuvenation Journey programs, she helps people who feel like their doctors have failed them. She advocates science-based natural, holistic, and complementary treatments to address the root cause of disease. Dr. Veronica is a highly-sought guest on national television and syndicated radio and hosts her own radio show, Wellness for the REAL World, on FOX Sports 920 AM “the Jersey” on Mondays at 7:00 pm ET.