I have cancer.
Breast cancer, to be exact.
I guess I mean I had cancer.
Have. Had. I’m not exactly sure where the line between has and had falls when you’re in the middle of post-lumpectomy chemotherapy, but let’s just say, if there are any remaining microscopic cancer cells in my body, they are on the run from the chemo…as is my hair.
I’ve agonized a bit on whether to write publicly about this or not. I’d already asked my friends to keep the information off Facebook. (I really don’t need 200 of my acquaintances (but not close friends) commenting on the state of my boobs…#cringeworthy).
At my institution, where I run evening college and elearning programs, I’ve kept things on the need-to-know basis up ’til now. I didn’t need much time off for my lumpectomy (2 days), and I’ve tolerated my first round of chemo well enough to only miss a sprinkling of days…so it wasn’t really a big “work” deal.
Yet, the educator in me feels the obligation to share a bit, in hopes that others on the same journey find information and comfort. And the co-worker and colleague in me thinks this is the way to get the word out in one fell swoop – own the story rather than be part of a gossip train – and help people adjust to my altered appearance prior to that first “in person” shocked reaction. (Online is a bit easier than face-to-face explanations).
But cancer has a way of determining it’s own agenda and timetable for disclosure. Well, not the cancer, really, but its treatment – chemotherapy.
For those of you who’ve never been through it or known someone close going through it, chemo has a predictable pattern…as it kills the fast dividing cancer cells, it also kills off the fast dividing healthy cells in your body leading to some of the more well known side effects of nausea, fatigue, and ultimately, hair loss. It happens almost like clockwork…around day 12 post chemo, the first few hairs start to fall. By day 13-14, you shed like a dog in spring. Many, like me, choose to cut their hair down to a military buzz cut about this time. Somehow it’s easier to see 1/4 inch of hair going down the drain each shower than 8 inch long strands and progressivley larger bald patches. By day 17-20, the remainder falls out, or gets “Bic’d” off, since it becomes like a 1000 shards of prickly demons poking into dying follicles.
This week, the buzz cut and die off happened in rapid succession for me. Hats and scarves became a part of my work wardrobe on Monday, and by Friday, the college buzzed with the “So… you’re sick?” or semi-stares at the various hats, and those looks of sympathy. Ironically, baldness is not a side effect of the cancer…it’s the cure. Yet that one side effect of hairloss is when Joe Public identifies you as “cancer patient”.
It’s out there now. Those I will see at quarterly meetings in April and May – yep, I’ll be the one wearing scarves or hats. Probably through the summer, until my hair starts to regrow.
There are no guidebooks for being a cancer patient while at work. Who do you tell? Who doesn’t need to know? How do you bring that kind of a subject up? “Hi, haven’t seen you since our last quarterly meeting in Seattle. By the way, I have breast cancer.” Let’s just say #awkward doesn’t begin to express it. I chose to keep quiet until it became obvious.
And for people like me – high energy and full of snark and humor – the awkwardness doesn’t come from people knowing, it comes from how people react when they know because everyone, generally, has their own cancer history as baggage.
What do you say to a colleague who has cancer? First, a few things not to do…
1. Any variation of “I’ll pray for you” – I keep religion out of my work environment on purpose. And unless you know the person is highly religious, this is very awkward. What do I say back? Uh, thanks? I do appreciate the sentiment – but I’m not super churchy in my day to day life and definitely not at work…again, it just feels awkward.
2. “Have you tried XYZ? It worked for my fill-in-the-relative.” I do appreciate that you’re trying to help, but I’m sticking with the plan my doctors and I’ve worked out.
3. Looks of sympathy bordering on sadness. Seriously, I need humor and positive vibes – upbeat, please. You don’t get to be more worried, stressed, or emotionally freaked out than me about my cancer. If I can handle it, suck it up buttercup, and match my mood.
4. “You look good bald.” Uh, no. I’m not Charlize Theron or Demi Moore rocking a Hollywood buzz cut. I may not be an ogre, but this is not my preferred hair choice. I may not be crying in my bathroom over the lost locks, but I’m definitely not reveling in it either. It is what it is. It’s okay to acknowledge it. (I joke about being Kojak). And I appreciate the sentiment behind the statement, but this is not a choice…it’s just a healing process.
What can you say?
1.Any variation of “well, damn!”
2. Ask me questions about it, my treatment plan, etc. I’m an educator, and quite happy to tell you that my cancer was found by mammogram only – couldn’t feel it by touch at all. (Hint: get regular mammograms)! My cancer and treatment are not state secrets (obviously), and I talk about it regularly with family and friends. I just am not going to keep up a newsletter’s worth of sharing after every doctor’s appointment. I don’t feel obligated to keep everyone that informed.
3. Talk about anything else besides my health. Seriously. Good lord, people. Have you read the news lately? There’s a lot more interesting things to talk about than my boobs or my bald head.
4. Dark humor. Love me some snark and humorous conversation. Several of my friends and I joke about who has worse “chemo brain”, them or me? And, of course, we have the hashtag #cancerperks and #chemoperks (don’t have to shave my legs until August! Woot!) Don’t be afraid to joke around with me – I’m not fragile, and prefer not to be treated as though I am.
So, next time we meet up, and you see me sporting this look:
Or if I get radical and go au natural…
Your job is to say, “Well, damn!” and possibly, “Did you actually tip the barber for that hairdo?” And then we can get on with life.