Continuing on with my posts in recognition of Lymphoma month, is a question that I am asked regularly, not just by Hodgkin’s patients, but by patients of other cancers as well. “I have cancer. Should I work?”
This is not an easy question to answer because it really is about choice. But were I to be given the chance again, I would not work. I am third generation blue collar worker. In other words, unless you were on your death bed, you showed up for work. And even then, I might still try to get some work while lying there. Being recommended to go on “disability” was not something I was even going to entertain the thought of. Besides that, I had a couple other thoughts. I was not going to let cancer dictate any more of my schedule and routine than it already had. I was going to continue on, with the exception of when I had to go for my treatments. The other, and just as important to mental health, I did not want to just sit around, with nothing to do, except think about me going through cancer. I needed to keep myself busy.
And if it had been that simple, I would have made the right choice. After all, I missed only limited time, two hours for two Fridays each month for my injections, and an hour in the morning for thirty mornings for my radiation treatments. My employer was definitely thrilled that I was not out for the entire time. After all, I was tougher than cancer.
But as I mentioned, cancer is not just physical, it is also mental. And unless you have the misfortune of going through a very bad illness such as cancer, I do not think a person can truly grasp what happens to our bodies. I do not fault anyone for that, but I do have to lay blame for their behavior that results from their ignorance. That can be controlled, but it is not. Instead, as if I was not dealing with enough with the cancer itself, all of a sudden I had become a burden to my co-workers.
Now you may be saying, “how could you have become a burden?” Simple, most employers have attendance rules and other policies. In spite of me being a private person, my co-workers seemed to have possessed knowledge that I did not. They assumed that I was getting special favors because of the time I was missing (the minimal time that it was), and this was not fair. It was not their concern, especially that I was not getting paid for that time, but my absence was a huge inconvenience to them. Twenty five years later, I still have not figured out why.
But the stress that was created by their scorned looks, and clear bad attitudes towards me, only helped to increase, rather decrease my immunity. Stress is a body’s reaction to the environment around, and it has profound effects on your immune system. And do you know what else has an effect on your immune system? That is right, chemotherapy drugs. And what happens when your immune system is down, you are more susceptible to other ailments. It is easier to come down with other ailments that others at work do not have the consideration to keep at home, like Strep Throat, sinus infections, Flu, and many more. To a cancer patient, this can be quite serious.
Of course, I was bull-headed and just pushed my way through this. And when my treatments were done, and my attendance record was still in tact, I only used that as motivation to go forward in my life as a hard working, dedicated employee. In no time, I would increase my working days and hours. Into my second decade of survival, I would actually start working seven days a week, and operated a couple of businesses that I started up. I would push myself as hard as I could, and my new employers would expect nothing less from me. After all, this is who I was.
But in 2008, my world came crashing down in a big way. A major complication from my treatments had created a life-threatening situation and I needed life saving heart surgery. You can read the page “CABG – Not Just A Green Leafy Vegetable” for the whole story. But what happened after the surgery, set me down a path that I would not realize would cause even more harm, until just this past weekend.
Following my heart surgery, obviously I was going to miss a lot of time from work for that, by no choice, I had been told six months. This was due to the radiation therapy posing potential issues with the healing of my breast bone. But my employer was going to only grant me three months. But what my co-workers was even more horrendous. One of the very first things following my surgery, the doctors wanted me to walk. I had left the hospital after a week, and on the very first day I went for a walk, just up to my corner and back was all I was up to. But a co-worker had seen me making this trek, and when he arrived to work, told other co-workers that he had seen me walking and I looked great and could not understand why I needed to be out any further. The animosity by my co-workers towards me only grew worse.
As time went on, more symptoms started appearing with physical issues affecting my shoulder, neck, back, and hips. This caused more limitations, and more grief from my co-workers. Eventually it got further into my head, that I had to be the problem. Issues arose with my supervisors trying to accommodate me and my working restrictions, as required by the American With Disabilities Act, and yes, that meant more resentment. But these accomodations allowed me to continue to work, and work the many hours that I had always done.
This just resulted in more issues, as my body continued to struggle keeping up with the load I placed on it. Eventually my immune system would run down again, and I got hit with two cases of life-threatening pneumonia, one I was septic, the other was double pneumonia. And six months later, another heart episode.
Earlier this year, something finally happened that my body or my will had no control over. Just a continuation of the struggling economy, and what I would describe as a big company simply not greedy enough, downsized my department. Soon my hours were reduced, and eventually, the assignment that I have had for all these years with my restrictions was taken away from me, eliminated. This put me into a general labor pool which I was no longer able to do.
I have not been at work since April. And you know what? My body has had time to rest, something I have denied it for a long time. But yesterday, as I was on a friend’s boat, as we sailed out to a popular island, I sat on the bow of the boat, looking at all the wonderful surroundings, feeling totally relaxed, and it had finally hit me. If it is going to come down to me or everyone else and what they expect of me, what is going to do more harm? If I do not care about myself, how can I expect anyone else to care about me?
Again, if a person is fortunate enough not to have to deal with a cancer diagnosis, or anything else as severe, you will never get this. Because of others, even those close to me, I allowed myself to push my body beyond what it was capable. A cancer patient’s body has been put through enough with toxic chemicals and radiation, and probably life altering surgeries, than to be expected to do any more. This does not make you weak. For the first time in my life, I think I am finally able to recognize and accept the word “disabled”. No, not in the sense that I need to be taken care of or have become unable to do things on my own, but my body is not just the same. I have exposed myself to too many risks by wearing my body down, and being near those who have just not been considerate to have stayed away from me exposing me to all kinds of illnesses.
So again, should you work while you are going through your cancer experience or after? It still is a personal decision, and one not to take lightly. But if it were up to me, I would definitely have done different and taken better care of myself. I will no longer allow anyone expect more of me, than what I know I can do myself.