Category Archives: Cancer at work

10 Things I Didn’t Know about Having Cancer at Work

In an ode to Letterman, we will do these in reverse order…they are all about equal in my book, but we have to have a little dramatic license for the blog post…

2016-03-itn-contagious-cancer10) Some co-workers may think cancer is contagious.  At least based on the way they scurry by my office with just that quick glance and maybe a muttered “hello”, they behave like they think it is.  These are people who used to hang out regularly and shoot the breeze.  I get it. I remind them of their mortality and that may make some uncomfortable. God forbid we think we are mere mortals at work.  Just to be clear, I am being treated for cancer, I am not dying from it.  If I were, I’d be cliff diving on a tropical beach somewhere spending my children’s inheritance…not puttering away in my office doing mundane jobby-job stuff. You are safe to come in and have coffee with me, and you can even laugh in my office.  I do. All. The. Time.

9) Chemo’s Law (like Murphy’s Law but for people undergoing chemotherapy):  If you are going to be fatigued from a recent chemo treatment, there will be an afternoon meeting scheduled until 4:30 pm that  day.  And it will run long.

8) Steroids make a girl hungry! Just like Amy Schumer and her crazy idea to eat a screen-shot-2016-03-05-at-8-57-28-am-copy-500x375sandwich in ultra-thin Hollywood, I get hungry. And for the first few days with each chemo treatment, my docs add steroids to the mix for nausea and energy support. For me, a midlife low carber, this makes me crave carbs.

I can see people look quizzically when I
get a full lunch…wait, doesn’t she have cancer? Isn’t it supposed to make you nauseaus and throw up all the time? Haha, jokes on both of us – many women undergoing treatment actually gain wait during chemo due to the supportive meds keeping us from being tired or nauseous, or from eating the only foods that won’t hurt our already sore mouth/tongue (See #3).  Ah…life’s little ironies.

7) Don’t expect this much make up when I have hair again. Someone told me the other day that I was positively glowing. LOL. Uh, the chemo look suits me? Yep, I glow with the help of my Max Factor bronzer.  When you don’t have hair, you compensate (overcompensate, maybe) by trying to play up your other feminizing attributes before you head out the door to the office. It is a bit of a trick with chemo-caused pale dry skin, thinning eyebrows and eyelashes, and dark circles from insomnia…but apparently I am a great make up artist and managed to pull this one off earlier this week. Yeah, me!

It takes a lot of work to make this face look normal.  Once my hair grows back, I plan to resume my usual throw-it-together-quick look, and gain back 20 minutes of my morning.  I apologize in advance for those of you will see me then.

072709kravitzgladys6) Gossips gonna gossip.  Every workplace has them.  The gossip king or queen who
shares out your business almost before you know it’s your business.  I kept my institution’s gossip hound in check for almost three months…until my hair disappeared…then so did my choice to tell people on my own timeline – and Gossip Gertie was only too willing to help.  It’s like swiming against a riptide to keep a Gladys Kravitz in check.  What are you going to do? I chose to swim parallel to the shore rather than drown. I broke the story first via this blog. Take that, you ear-hustler!

5) OMG – quit scheduling appointments without checking with me first!  I have a pretty full schedule with lots of meetings and occasional travel.  I don’t have time for cancer. To top it off, my cancer center schedules appointments without checking to see if I am available or even in town. Really? Like I should be focusing on my treatments instead of work? Yes, I know the answer here. Et tu, Appointment Maker.  Et tu?

Easier said than done.

When you work hard to get where you are in your career (or to almost where you want to be), it is incredibly difficult to step back.  In competive work environments, to show weakness is to make room for others to move in on your hard-won territory.  That’s not really my situation, so much, but as a woman in a male-dominated field, I understand the thinking.  It goes against my work ethic to take time off – even when it’s needed. I have no solution here – only a recognition of the problem.

4) Chemo-nomnia is a thing. Mujer intentando dormirI have no idea how I can be so fatigued after chemo and
working all day, and yet suffer from insomnia at the same time.  All I want to do is lay down and sleep, yet I toss and turn all night once I get there.  Those dark circles are not reflective of my current state of health…just my current lack of solid sleep.

3) Other side effects.  Nausea? Nope. Fatigue? A little. Hair loss? For sure.  Those are the ones I knew about – the things you see in movies and read about.  But there’s all sorts of fun ones you learn about that you still have to figure out how to deal with while working, even if the big three aren’t giving you too much trouble.  Some of my side effects I got to learn about include:

  • Mouth sores – chemo wreaks havoc with the fast dividing cells in your mouth.  You can get canker sores, lose your tastebuds, develop oral thrush which causes your lymph nodes to swell, you get a sore throat and an annoying dry cough….none of these are very pleasant.  They can impact your work if you are supposed to run meetings, meet with clients, talk on the phone or basically do any kind of communication other than email.
  • Hand and Foot syndrome – this is basically when the chemo leaks out of your capillaries in your hands and sometimes feet. It usually attacks the palms and soles, but for me, it attacked the back of my hands. I had what I can only describe as “fire itch” like the worst hive/poison ivy/steam burn you can imagine, all at once, that lasted almost 10 days.  At first the docs thought it was an allergic reaction – so I was taking every antihistamine and using every topical ointment out there.  Nothing worked except ice packs.  I learned later, the fire itch was kind of like a chemical burn happening from the inside out on the backs of my hands.  It stopped almost as suddenly as it started – two days before my next infusion.  My hands are currently peeling like I had a sunburn. I joke that I am molting.  It is not pretty to look at and I keep my hands super lotioned up at work to avoid the gross out factor.

2) Hats, scarves, and a work wardrobe…oh, my. Once I was over the initial hairloss freakout, I realized I was in for at least 6-9 months of needing something to cover my noggin’. Baseball caps don’t cut it if you work in a professional office. Men have this a bit easier, I think.  Just like dress shoes, women need a variety of hats and scarves to go with a variety of work outfits.  And it takes a little while to learn how to tie those suckers.  Plus, I learned the hardway, I actually need a thing called a hat liner to wear under my scarves or they tend to slide right off my slippery-smooth skull.

Who knew?

(By the way, all head-related items necessary to ride out chemo at work can be found at Amazon.com.  I think my UPS guy just automatically stops at my house and assumes he has a delivery for me now.)

1) Invest in companies who hold patents on chemo drugs.  Seriously.  (Which is my way of saying I am thrilled to the moon to have solid health care insurance and can’t imagine trying to figure out how to afford breast cancer without it). You 20 somethings who groan about being perfectly healthy and STILL having to pay for insurance…guess what? 20 somethings can get cancer too.  And go bankrupt from it.

roche_media_overview_manufacturing_560x315

One chemo infusion (of four that I will have) cost approximately $21,000.  That is not the doctor, nurses, infusion room or any other supply.  It is just the two 1/4 cups of liquid chemo gold in the IV bags.  There were at least eight other people receiving treatment with me during my last appointment.  And I live in a small town.  When you start doing the math nation or even statewide, it’s rather staggering.

I honestly had no idea.

People in the 21st century should never have to choose between a roof over their head, food on their table, or life and death medical treatment.  They just shouldn’t have to choose.

I’m lucky to work where I do, and to receive the health benefits that I do. I work hard to earn them, but it is still such a privilege to have them.

And that’s, perhaps, the greatest lesson I’ve learned from having cancer at work.

4 Comments

Filed under Cancer at work, Women

The Bald Truth

6357983330339758142143327262_cancer-pink-ribbon-fb

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:

image

Or this:

image

Or if I get radical and go au natural…

image

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.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Cancer at work, Women