When you “get” cancer, you lose a lot of things. You might lose your hair, an organ or part of an organ; you might lose your peace of mind, your faith, your belief in the future. You lose a lot of time, from hours-long infusions of chemotherapy to day-long bouts of exhaustion, from minutes and hours waiting in doctor’s offices and emergency rooms to minutes and hours completing forms and talking to faceless, nameless people who help you (or don’t) to get test results or insurance benefits or appointments. Sometimes you lose your job.
It surprised me early on to hear how many people in my support group mourned their jobs. Maybe it’s true that “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office.’” But, lots of people with cancer have said, “I wish I could spend more time in the office.” And, I’m one of them.
For the people who know me best, this may be a surprise. My balance has always been clearly tipped toward the time I spend outside of work. I’m a homebody. I love to cook and bake. Believe it or not, I find great satisfaction in cleaning and ordering. I’ve been learning to sew. I play the piano. I work out. I’ve trained for a triathlon. I love spending time with my daughter. I love television and movies and books and music. When I’m at home, I can easily forget about work.
But the first thing I did when I got out of the hospital was check in with work and volunteer to attend a meeting the next day. Work was compelling, and I needed to be immersed in it. Christopher Hitchens talks about denial in his memoir, Mortality. Just days after his diagnosis, when he was very sick and weak, he insisted on attending an event where he was guest of honor. It was, he said, his way of asserting that he wasn’t actually sick.
Immersion wasn’t just about denial for me, however. It was also about identity, control, and pleasure. I have never felt more vulnerable and more anonymous and more miserable than when I was in the hospital. I felt like a diagnosis, and one I knew very little about on top of it. I was imprisoned within a hospital room, literally connected by IVs and catheters to the hospital itself. Every detail of my body was known to others but not regularly shared with me. I was pushed in my bed to unnamed places for unexplained tests and procedures. I couldn’t eat or get out of bed or take off the damned hospital socks without permission.
At work I have a title, a routine, autonomy, tasks that I enjoy and that I’m good at. I have knowledge and expertise. People consult me, and clear boundaries let me reveal things about myself in my own way or keep them concealed.
As time goes on, people with cancer become immersed in “having cancer.” It’s very hard to escape that identity because so much time is lost to being a person with cancer and completing tasks because of cancer. And then there’s treatment and its aftermath. There’s pain and side effects, joints hurt, hair falls out, fingers go numb, memory fogs. And exhaustion consumes you. My treatment had minimal suffering as cancer treatments go, but there was still pain, still side effects and still exhaustion.
I remember one day, an hour after treatment, participating in a teleconference. Halfway through, and in the midst of a conversation that involved me, I had to abandon the call and run to the bathroom. It took 24 hours to get back to my colleagues.
It was hard for me to negotiate my work presence during treatment. On one hand, I wanted people to know I was sick, but I wanted to be seen as fully competent and responsible. I erred, perhaps, in pretending that all was well because in January, a month after treatments had ended, I realized how compromised I had been, how clouded my mind was and how substandard my work had become.
Telling people to lower their expectations or taking a leave or even taking time off feels very much like giving in. If you miss work on Friday, will you ever go back? If you fail to complete one task, will anyone ever trust you to complete another one?
For those in my support group who are much sicker than I am, work is no longer a possibility, and it is a profound absence. They long to do the work they love, to be productive, to be needed and depended on. Being sick is boring. One woman talks about watching television but being unable to enjoy it because she falls asleep in the middle of one show and wakes up in the middle of another. One woman hates that her days are filled with Judge Judy instead of with the children in her classroom.
It’s false and it’s simplistic to think that work is trivial, a necessity that we do against our will. I take more pleasure in my work after being diagnosed with cancer than I ever have. It is more important to me now than it was before. When I complete a menial task or make a hard decision, I celebrate that I have the energy and health to do both, and I relish the satisfaction of being needed and of being productive.
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