When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was already in a fight for my life—my professional life. I’d left my secure job as a school nurse to give clinical research a try. The company where I landed was a toxic working environment. I planned to escape to something better– once I passed the one year mark. But when I was almost there, a routine mammogram stopped me in my tracks. I would be headed to treatment.
I know I’m not the only one. Others face different struggles when a cancer diagnosis is added to their lives: failing marriages, homes in foreclosure, disabled children depending on them. Cancer changes the focus for a while—especially the question of whether or not you’re going to live. But after you’re settled into treatment the struggle that was in place before your diagnosis continues to provide its challenges—and is often compounded with the demands of cancer.
While people soon learned about my breast cancer, few knew about the difficulties I faced at work. It would be impossible to explain my situation to those without experience with that company—or one like it. It was easier for them to understand surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. They couldn’t see how embarrassed I felt to be in that predicament as a professional nurse of twenty-three years.
The Saturday that I was scheduled to have my head shaved, after I had my first treatment with Adriamycin and Cytoxan, my younger sister took me to lunch. When she opened the conversation with, “How are you doing?” I quickly responded that the first round of chemo wasn’t so bad, Zofran is an amazing anti-nausea drug, and then I launched into my struggle at work.
“They’re watching all the time,” I said and felt my anger build. “Comparing my recruitment numbers to others who’ve worked in clinical trials much longer.” My sister looked surprised at this shift in the conversation. I told her that six months in, they’d met with me and said they weren’t sure I was a good fit. “I’m afraid they’ll fire me and then I’ll lose my health insurance.” I broke down sobbing, not about cancer, but about the job that at times was worse than cancer.
She’d expected to lend support to her sister with breast cancer—something feared by most women. While she tried to understand my work stress, that was probably more difficult because she was secure in her job as a school social worker.
Cancer, like other serious illnesses, doesn’t drop into a perfect life. It often lands in the midst of an already taxed system that’s teetering on the edge. I think about this now, seventeen years after my diagnosis, considering how I talk with those who are receiving their bad news.
Because cancer is not your entire life. You’re still a person who works, has relationships with family and significant others, has financial responsibilities, and health needs besides cancer care.
My simultaneous struggle with that toxic job and cancer was the most challenging time in my life. It would have helped if I could have shared both struggles, equally—letting go of the shame of that job.
From now on, after I ask, “How are things going with your cancer treatment?” I’ll add, “And how’s the rest of your life?”
What about You?
Have you ever had a diagnosis of cancer or another illness that was known to others, while you hid a deeper struggle inside?
What would have helped you to open up about that struggle?
How can we create an environment which makes it safe for others to share these private burdens?