Be the Boss Over Cancer

by Teresa M. on November 26, 2008
I was Diagnosed with:
Stage 3 Breast Cancer
Date of Diagnosis:
April 10, 2008
Employment Status:
Type and Description of Treatments:
Lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation
How do you feel today?

I've finished chemo and have 2 surgeries behind me. I just have radiation to get through. I'm feeling positive that this is the final step, though my body is still feeling the effects of my chemo regimen. I was lucky that I was able to function fairly well, even when I was at my worst. My sense of taste has returned and I'm sporting a layer of peach fuzz on my head.

Since the diagnosis, what has changed in your life?

I tried very hard to maintain my "normal" lifestyle. Of course that's impossible and, sadly, a form of denial. I have found myself to be much more introspective and not as quick to be stressed by the inconsequential. I am single, live alone and just a few months prior to my diagnosis moved from Canada to California. Living so far from family and friends I had to be able to look after myself, though I was able to find support from some very wonderful people in unexpected places. I've learned to be aware of taking things for granted, whether it's the taste of a strawberry or a hug from a friend.

What is going well for you right now?

My lymph node biopsy and the additional margin they removed from the site of my initial surgery both came back clear - it doesn't get any better than that. I haven't felt ill in weeks and my strength is coming back.

What is not going well for you right now?

I have yet to recover my sense of self. I'm keenly self-conscious about my appearance as it has become the focal point of my illness - not out of vanity but because it was a physical manifestation of my cancer diagnosis. Being single makes this an even bigger hurdle. Let's face it, it's can be difficult to date even in the best of times.

What has been the most challenging thing about having cancer?

Being a very private person, one of my biggest challenges has been opening up to people about my condition. With no second income and being on a work visa, I had to continue with business as usual. My only alternative was to leave my job and head back home - something I am not quite ready to do, though in hindsight would possibly have been a healthier alternative. Living abroad by oneself can be somewhat lonely. Add to that the feelings of isolation and alienation that occur with a serious illness and it can be difficult to maintain a positive, healing attitude.

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

I have been lucky in the short time I've lived in my new home to have met some very caring people. One person in particular has spent a great deal of time with me throughout the experience and has kept me sane by never treating me like I'm ill. I also spend a great deal of time on the phone speaking to loved ones back home - thank goodness for flat rate long distance! Living near the ocean I find that when all else fails, a walk on the boardwalk can bring a bit of solace.

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

I'm not one to make specific long-term or life goals aside from trying to live with a positive attitude. This obviously has been put to the test over the past few months but has also been enhanced. I am more conscious of how precious life is and to live it as best I can. I accept that there are no guarantees in life and that no matter how well you live, it can still all go pear-shaped in one phone call.

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

After a nine-week leave I'm back at work full time. I'm in a managerial role and end up working 50-60 hours per week.

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

I have always taken pride in my professional life. I tried my utmost to minimize the impact of my treatments on my job. Unfortunately it has not been a supportive environment, though my staff and peers have been wonderful throughout. Chemo brain has impacted my short term memory and my ability to multi-task, though thankfully it is slowly getting better. I had an intensive chemo regimen that was physically very debilitating. At the same time I was under a great deal of pressure to perform and there was underlying hostility towards my inability to accomplish tasks. I finally gave in to my doctor's counsel and took a nine-week disability leave and immediately my side effects became more controllable.

What has helped you continue to work the most?

My team has been exceptional in their support. They welcomed me back with open arms after my leave, which has helped me to ignore any lingering discontent directed towards me.

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

Stopping does not equate to failure. Not everyone is in a nurturing, supportive work environment. You have to ensure you put your health first. I scheduled my chemotherapy to take place on Friday mornings to minimize the time I had to take off. One Friday they were unable to insert the IV and had to send me to get a PICC line and rescheduled my chemo for the Monday. I found myself getting very upset with the nurses because this was going to cause me to lose almost the entire work week. The nurse looked at me strangely and asked me, "didn't I think my health was more important?". It made me stop and re-evaluate.

My second piece of advice is to acknowledge that unless a person has been through the experience, they cannot fully understand it. Don't take it personally but don't allow yourself to be dismissed either. Try to educate these individuals if possible. One friend continuously equated my side effects with her pregnancy until I told her it was OK that she could not relate to what I was going through, nor did I expect her to.

How have you dealt with any side effects of treatment?

Being on one of the heavier chemo regimens, I had a large number of side effects that got progressively more severe and lasted longer with each session. They ranged from irritating to debilitating. For my worst days I made sure I had enough water and herbal tea to ensure I didn't dehydrate and crawled under the covers. I'm not very fond of taking drugs and limited my non-chemo intake as much as possible, seeking alternative ways to combat side effects. Ginger or peppermint teas are great for people experiencing nausea and/or taste changes (or yuck-mouth as I called it). For the most part I let the side effects take their course and just tried to listen to what my body was telling me it needed - rest, water, etc.

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

I would say - take this seriously but don't stop living. Allow yourself to grieve as it's natural to feel upset and angry, but don't stay in that place. Above all, love and cherish yourself and take the opportunity to learn more about yourself.