Cancer Super Achievers: An Unproductive Lament

The world of cancer is peppered with super achievers. For some people, a cancer diagnosis propels them into a flurry of mountain treks, book deals, year-long walkabouts, profitable blogs, the starting of foundations. They do cleansing diets, quit or change their jobs, marry or get divorced, adopt children, remodel their homes. The wind machines of productivity blow their long, flowing (metaphorical) hair into the photographer’s lens, and the world, it celebrates their proliferating efforts.

woman wearing gray shirt and black overalls on boat
I wish I had her hair. 

“You don’t have long to live,” cancer says. It is, to be sure, a wake up call.

Respect. And it’s no one’s business how we react to cancer or any disease. The music of coping has a wide, wide range.

And yet I can’t help feeling pressured, at times, to do. I realize this is partly cultural. Americans value productivity, work, achievement, productive leisure (think high-end tents, travel, what did you do this weekend?). Even cancer is no ticket out of this race. Even the cancer patient (and the chronically ill in general) must justify their rest, their healing, their not-productive-sitting-reading-resting being. We don’t honor enough that healing is an active, regenerative process in which the body’s reserves must be deeply tapped. This causes fatigue. It can cause grief. We don’t honor rest. We don’t honor the trauma that cancer heaps on the mind and the body, and the concentric circles it then echoes into family, friends, community.

In this vein, I want to say that I haven’t been terribly productive. This has its pluses, its minuses. Working outside the home is a way of staying engaged with the world, is a way of having another thread of meaning woven into your life. And I have been away from a job I love for nearly seven months.  Working inside the home is a series of tasks that are constantly being undone, and therefore there’s little to show for it.  And I haven’t written a book, haven’t remodeled a room. Kitchen cabinets remain in disarray. The wet mop is still outside, the linoleum has holes.

Not productive.

I ask myself: What should I be doing, exactly? Should I be sorting through the old books, cleaning the garage? Another Costco run? More vigorous meditation, reading professional manuals? Piles of poem and other drafts stack each household table, as do my husband’s paints, brushes, figures. I wander and sit. I read, then rest. I cook a little, grocery shop. Then rest some more. I spend 2-3 hours a day doing physical therapy exercises. “What do you do all day?” someone asked. Cue maniacal laughter.

Not productive.

I once scrolled past a Twitter post that read something like, “Click to see how breast cancer inspired this woman to climb Mt. Everest!” I replied, semi-snarkily, “Breast cancer made me cranky and tired.” Oh, the dark humor of it. But it was the truth.

And you know what?

It was the most productive thing I did that day.

 

How do you cope with your body’s need to heal? Its unpredictability, the need for rest?

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Work. And Cancer.

Should I work during treatment?

Can I go on disability?

What about health insurance? My finances?

How do I talk about my cancer? Should I?

 These are just some of the questions that many of us, myself included, consider when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. If you were diagnosed before retirement, questions about work, your work life, finances and benefits may weigh heavily. This link to the American Cancer Society answers some of those questions, but the bottom line is this: It’s personal. And there’s no one right way to go.

nature red forest leaves
Forward, backwards, or off the beaten path? Part time or full time? Or maybe a walk in the woods to think it through.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Lottery, pot of gold, best-ever fortunate. And I’m saying this here not to boast, but to hopefully help those of you whose co-workers might not be responsive, whose superiors might not understand, or whose work conditions might not support your needs. Let me tell you why I’ve been so lucky, and grateful:

  1. Supportive, sisterhood-level colleagues. For confidentiality, I won’t describe the details of my job, but my coworkers are incredibly supportive. Sometimes this means checking in, sometimes it means silence, but it is always surrounded by kindness. I wish I could send them all to Hawaii with mai tais and a warm quiet sandy beach. They are, each to each, a hallelujah chorus. I love them.
  2. Supportive boss. My higher-ups have pretty much said, ”We’ll have a job for you whenever you come back.” I can’t tell you how much this has meant. Even though my prognosis is currently in flux and unknown, to know that this one certainty exists acts as one small light in the darkness.
  3. Work I love. I find it challenging, engaging, meaningful, and it stretches my capabilities as a human being. To be in an environment where we all are learning and practicing and supporting each others’ growth is a privilege, and one that I hope to return to.
two person in formal attire doing shakehands
This is a picture of two white men shaking hands. WordPress needs more diverse work photos. 

Practices that have helped my employment situation:

  1. Transparency. But, caveat emptor: your diagnosis impacts coworkers, and it’s important to be judicious and mindful in how it’s communicated. Others may be struggling with ill loved ones, or in grief, or not wanting to deal – and that is to be respected. Everyone is in a different place. I have deep trust in my coworkers and so communication and transparency were not an issue, but your work place may be different. If your situation is hostile or not supportive, I am truly sorry. This might be the time to look at your legal rights, or call your local American Cancer Society for guidance.
  2. Assistance with disability and other employment paperwork. Your benefits and/or HR department should direct you, and sometimes other coworkers have excellent insights into sick leave benefits, disability, and/or other options.
  3. Flexibility. The ability to return to work part time after my first treatment cycle ended was incredibly helpful. We know that fatigue, depression, anxiety, and post-treatment pain can come suddenly, and that our new, post-treatment bodies need time to heal. Part-time work can act as a bridge to help you return to full-time employment.
  4. Communication. Letting your superiors know what’s going on and providing even tentative timelines is important. Others may be carrying a larger workload in your stead, and your coworkers need to plan and organize their work lives. Check in. Keep your employer in the loop.

Work is personal, and carries so much weight. It impacts how we live and our finances. And with a cancer diagnosis, I think it symbolizes our ability to return back to the river of normal life. In that sense, work is powerful. It is a step back into the continuum of living.

green grass field and mountain
Beautiful, but not my backyard. You don’t want to see my backyard.

I wish you, or your coworkers, or your spouse or relative, a supportive and meaningful path back to work.