Be the Boss Over Cancer

by Judy C. on March 7, 2009
I was Diagnosed with:
Stage 1 Breast Cancer in left breast (1.4 cm tumor)
Date of Diagnosis:
March 10, 2006
Employment Status:
employed full time as a Ph.D. level research scientist
Type and Description of Treatments:
I had a biopsy in 2000 due to microcalcifications in my left breast, which were benign at the time. The radiologist left some of them in as a "marker." I wasn't totally surprised, then, to receive my cancer diagnosis in March 2006. I decided to have a lumpectomy w/ removal of 3 lymph nodes, followed by 6 weeks of radiation (30 treatments), and subsequent daily hormone treatment with tamoxifen (to be taken daily for 5 years). I decided not to have chemotherapy, although my oncologist was promoting a clinical trial for chemo. I researched the issue and was quite comfortable that chemotherapy was not necessary for my medical situation.
How do you feel today?

I feel pretty good and still look young for my age (exercise and highlights...can't beat it!). I'm a very active person and lead a healthy lifestyle (I was this way prior to the cancer, too). I went to an exercise class this morning and will be going out for an hour long walk shortly.

Since the diagnosis, what has changed in your life?

Besides not being able to draw blood or have my blood pressure checked in my left arm anymore, a lot of things have stayed about the same. I still work the same job and I'm still single and very independent. I liked to do big vacations prior to having cancer and I've kept that up with a month in New Zealand in March 2007 and a trip to China in November 2008 and other domestic trips within the states since then. One thing I haven't been able to do as much is paddle my sea kayak, which is very important to me and forms the foundation for a lot of my close friendships with other paddlers. I'm hoping I'll be able to get back to it more this summer.

After my diagnosis, I really wanted to have my financial freedom so I paid off my house early 2.5 years ago. I was planning all along to pay it off early before I turned 50, but having the cancer was a motivating factor to never get in a situation where I might lose my house in case I became incapacitated and couldn't work.

Having cancer really shows you who your friends are, and some people aren't in my life much anymore who couldn't handle being around someone with cancer. Before cancer, I was kind of the catalyst that would get a small group of friends together for dinner and other activities. After cancer, I found none of my other friends were picking up the slack to plan get togethers. I recently started getting them together again as I seem to be the glue that brings them together.

What is going well for you right now?

Work is going fairly well and is intellectually stimulating. My biography made the 2009 edition of Who's Who in America. I collected over $2,000 for a local food shelf over the holidays from co-workers, and that was a very gratifying experience. I'm also doing some volunteer work for the American Heart Association. I've been reconnecting with friends more in the past several months as the weather has improved (it's late winter as I write this). I also just had a romantic weekend with a guy friend out west for Valentine's Day--yahoo! Finally, I just had my 3 year check-up and everything is looking A-ok. Yeah!

What is not going well for you right now?

My energy level is still not as good as it was pre-cancer. Although I do a lot, I'd like to be a bit more peppy w/out any added stimulants (I don't drink anything with caffeine). I walk just about every day and do several exercise classes. I don't always sleep that well...some of which is due to premenopause.

I sometimes feel a bit trapped with job options due to insurance issues. My stress level can be high at times. I have had a lot of health issues in the past year, including a workers comp injury to my wrists, that has prevented me from doing some activities I enjoy like paddling. My fitness club canceled their pilates class over 3 months ago that I loved doing. I have been trying to do it some on my own, but miss seeing some of the people from class. I tried another pilates class somewhere else, but I didn't like it as well and it was stressful getting to the class on time after work.

I wish I could see my romantic friend out west more often. I find it very difficult to meet men in the large city I live in, even though I'm fairly outgoing and attractive. A lot of men seem to shy away when they find out I have a Ph.D.

What has been the most challenging thing about having cancer?

People have the perception that once you get through the surgery and radiation treatment, that you're home free. However, breast cancer often involves a 5-yr plan for treatment until your risk level returns to about the same as the general population. The most challenging thing is that things can pop up post surgery, like lymphedema, so that I have to make life-style alterations to reduce my risk of getting it. In June 2008, I came down with a sudden case of cellulitis where I had had breast cancer, and I ended up in the emergency room and had to spend part of the weekend in the hospital getting pumped up with IV antibiotics, followed by 6 wks of oral antibiotics. The possibility of a recurrence is always lurking, and I'm always a bit anxious when I get checked out every 6 months...either with a MRI or mammograms. Luckily, the breast center and cancer center I go to is very quick with providing results. I find the waiting for results to be agonizing at times.

On my first anniversary of being diagnosed with breast cancer, I planned a big month-long trip to New Zealand on my own to celebrate my survival. I signed up for an outdoor adventure trip on the South Island, and I was going to visit friends on the North Island and do other traveling on my own. Two days before my departure, I went in for my mammograms and they found microcalcifications in my right breast (my good one). Drat! They had to do a biopsy and expedited the results for me (the radiologist and nurses were the best...just fantastic!). Luckily, I found out the results were benign, and this time, the radiologists removed all the microcalcifications he saw. Two days later, I was snorkeling with seals in New Zealand! Nevertheless, there is always the thought in the back of my mind of when is the other shoe going to drop that I might get diagnosed with breast cancer in my other breast. I try to stay upbeat, especially when I'm around other people, but I do have my dark moments when I'm alone. I just want to feel like I totally have my life back, and it is never going to be quite the same as it was before. I often tell people that I feel lucky that my breast cancer was diagnosed early, and I truly believe that, but I still would rather not have gone through this experience. I've been through enough other challenges with other family members severe medical problems that I didn't need another thing to test my mettle.

When difficulties overwhelm you, where do you go for support?

I never got so overwhelmed that I couldn't figure out how I was going to attack the problem. I got some great support from some close friends, and good support from family (although none of them live in my state). Some co-workers were very sweet about offering their support if I needed it, but I never felt that bad that I couldn't take care of myself. Plus, I wanted to "bank" their offers for down the line in case I got in a worst situation.

How have your long-term goals or life goals changed since diagnosis?

Fortunately, I like my job for the most part and have opportunities for bringing in grants to do applied research that I am interested in that will also help others in my state. Before getting cancer, I had considered eventually moving back to the west coast, but now, I wouldn't consider leaving due to fear of losing insurance coverage or having to pay higher insurance premiums. At times, this has felt stifling as I perceive myself as having less options with where I could work at. With the downturn in the economy, I'm just glad now that I have a fairly secure job.

I was not in a relationship when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It took me about 9-10 months before I felt ready to get back in the dating scene. I found myself turning down some guys invites for dates just because I didn't want to have to reveal my cancer to them. What I've learned since then, is that my scars aren't an issue for any of the men that I've dated. Having had early stage breast cancer hasn't been a make or break issue with the men I've met. I never thought getting married was something I needed to do, and I still feel the same way. It would be nice to have a companion, though. I met someone while on vacation last September that I really like, but we live half a coast away from each other, and I've decided to just enjoy those little snippets of happiness where I find them.

What is your work arrangement right now? What are your hours?

I work full-time from 9 am to 5:30 pm M-F. I apply for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time every year so that any of my follow-up medical appointments related to the cancer are counted as FMLA time on my time sheet.

Since the diagnosis, what has changed in your work life?

I used to work a lot of weekends, but had already cut down my hours to a more normal 40 hr/week work schedule prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer. Everyone at work has been pretty understanding, except for a couple of jerks in one of our other offices who were on the verge of creating a hostile work environment for me. That was hard, having that kind of stress, when going through major medical treatment and trying to finish up a grant at the same time.

The day my breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed, I sent out an email message to several people that work on my floor to be upfront about what I was going through and how I wanted to be treated (i.e., treat me the same as before and don't ask questions about my treatment or tell me stories of others who have died of breast cancer...I'll let you know how I'm doing). I even added a joke about borrowing the blond wig that had just been given to our HR director as a gag gift in case I went through chemo. I look back at that email now, and I'm amazed at how upbeat I was. Sure enough, I was plenty bummed out the previous day when I had the biopsy and the radiologist indicated he was fairly sure I had breast cancer, but after a night of tears, I just wanted to fight this thing and was very determined and strong.

Several people at work have told me they look up to me, and that if they were ever in a similar situation, that they hoped they could handle it with the strength and resolve I showed. I'd say that my work life hasn't changed that much post-cancer, but some people know me better now and have more respect for me.

What has helped you continue to work the most?

Work helped me get through the treatment by maintaining my work routine and continuing to meet deadlines. I had some major work tasks due within a few months of my cancer diagnosis to finish up a grant (that would have been difficult to get an extension for it). I was highly motivated to get back to work quickly after surgery so I could complete my work tasks (which were also highly interesting for me). Having something mentally stimulating to do was welcome relief for the physical things I was going through.

I did feel a bit "lost" after I finished my last radiation treatment, which was just a few days after completing my grant. I had been so motivated and focused on the tasks at hand with my treatment and work that I wasn't sure what to do with myself. It was like, what do I do next to keep fighting the cancer from coming back? I ended up taking several weeks off work and just decompressing at home to acknowledge what I had just been through.

What advice do you have for others trying to work through treatment?

Get educated about your particular form of cancer and research your options before making any decisions about treatment. If it's too overwhelming for you, get a spouse or friend that is assertive and knowledgeable to be your advocate. Get a second or third opinion if you don't feel comfortable with your first treatment option. Make sure your doctors are working as a team. If your doctor does not listen to you, get a new doctor if at all possible or let him/her know how you expect to be treated. Treat everyone that provides you with medical care with respect and understanding...they have a tough job, too. Giving your nurses little tokens like some hand-picked flowers from your garden or a bottle of wine if they've been extraordinary is always appreciated by them. When you're done with your treatment, pay it forward to help others going through treatment, too.

How have you dealt with any side effects of treatment?

I only missed 70 hrs of work for my diagnosis, surgery & recovery, 30 radiation treatments, genetic testing, and initial oncology visits. I had my lumpectomy on a Friday morning, went to stay with friends that afternoon (after picking out movies at a video store), and was back to work the following Wednesday. I got through the surgery pretty well. I didn't have a lot of fatigue from the radiation treatments, and since I'm small breasted, not much chafing. I did develop a lot of tightness in my left breast from the scar tissue, and after the radiation treatment my left breast was smaller and harder. I obtained some physical therapy 5-6 months after surgery to help break up the scar tissue, which also made it less hard. I still use a physical therapy gel patch on my scar to keep it more supple, and I also massage the area. I also felt like I was getting some lymph build-up along my left side and I received some additional physical therapy to learn self-massage techniques to "wake-up" the lymph system and get it moving again. Being on tamoxifen has made me a bit more anxious and emotional. Tamoxifen has a number of potentially serious side effects, and I'm careful to get up and walk often on long flights to avoid blood clots. Tamoxifen can cause uterine cancer, and I had a partial hysterectomy to remove my uterus in May 2008 because precancerous changes were occurring. My oncologist has talked about switching me over to an aromotase inhibitor (which has less side effects than tamoxifen) but I'm still premenopausal.

If "today's you" could give advice to "day-of-diagnosis you," what would you say?

You are going to get through this in fine shape, and your fearless attitude will make you all the more attractive to men!