D M. on October 18, 2015
I was Diagnosed with:
Prostate Cancer, Gleason 7
Soon to be unemployed
Type and Description of Treatments:
Robotic Assisted retropubic radical prostatectomy. First off, I want to thank Dr. James Porter of Swedish Hospital in Seattle. Friends of mine at the cancer center where I work as well as a personal friend/mentor/best-ever former boss/prostate cancer survivor all recommended treatment by Dr. Porter. He and his skilled team completed the radical prostatectomy on me 6 days ago. The procedure went surprisingly smoothly, recovery is of course something to get through, but I am convinced that the robotic procedure has reduced the recovery challenges. Not running marathons yet, but definitely able to cope with recovery.
How do you feel today?
I am optimistic that I will make a full recovery. I have some occasional anxiety about the upcoming pathology report and subsequent and repeated PSA tests - hopeful there will be no recurrence.
Since the diagnosis, what has changed in your life?
In some ways, a cancer diagnosis does indeed bring crystal clarity to the importance of focusing on the positives in your life. The importance of spending time with those you love, but not with those that are hurtful or are self-centered.
What is going well for you right now?
I made it through surgery (yay!) and I'm on the road to recovery (yay!), soon to have the catheter removed with the hope for recovery of continence and no cancer recurrence.
What is not going well for you right now?
I work(ed) at a major cancer center. At first, when I told several colleagues about my diagnosis, there were certainly many very compassionate physicians whom I believe really cared and gave me laser-focused attention when I talked with them about my treatment options. I am very grateful for their concern and care.
What has been the most challenging thing about having cancer?
At the time I received a diagnosis, I'd been in a role at the cancer center where my boss and associate director had resigned more than a year earlier - and had not yet been replaced. We had a small work group, and I'd been asked to help get the group through the period of short staffing. I tried my best to balance the needs of my health concerns with work, working a lot of 10-12 hour days to keep up with the workload left by the departed employees.
On my first visit with the surgeon, following the visit, I was escorted to the surgery scheduling team. The first date for surgery they offered corresponded precisely with the first date of arrival for the new VP of our department. I was torn between duty to work and the need to get through my surgery. I didn't want to be off work on the first day my new boss showed up, and also worried that I'd be a pain as an employee if I was gone during the new VP's first 3-6 weeks on the job as I recovered from surgery. I ultimately deferred my surgery for 2 1/2 months - a big mistake (though hopefully not impacting outcome.
I told my new VP immediately that I'd need to take a leave to have surgery in a few months time. Within 2 1/2 weeks, the new VP announced to my colleagues that our cancer center had no skill set in the area I covered, and privately told me more than a 100 people had been consulted prior to arriving at that conclusion (I have no defense for such a statement as I do not know who was consulted or what was said in the internal/external community).
Additionally, it was made clear that though I had 3 months of vacation time "banked" (and had a mandate to either use it or lose it over the upcoming year) - that all goals, objectives, and deadlines would have to be met regardless of any time taken for leave or vacation. It seemed there would be no way to meet my health needs, to take banked vacation, and to meet goals.
The day after I filed a leave of absence form with my HR department, I was called for a meeting with my boss and head of HR. I had been concerned that in light of statements made about my work etc., I might be getting terminated, and of course I was concerned about simply being able to get through my surgery before being terminated. At the meeting, I was 1) assurred that I was not being terminated, but I was also 2) informed that in six months time, I would not be in the same role, and that in fact I was going to be offered a "major demotion" and that pay would be "somewhere in the payscale" for that position (no specifics) ... and that at that time I would be offered the choice of either accepting whatever offer was put forward for the demoted role, or voluntarily resigning.
According to policies of the center, taken at face value (later clarified by HR) - such an action would subject me to potentially having to either accept a dramatic cut in pay or resigning - and thereby being put in a position of a) not being able to collect my unused vacation time, b) not being offered any severance, and c) not being entitled to any unemployment benefits (because resignation would be "voluntary").
I felt pretty overwhelmed by the upcoming change in employment status and the still pending need for a leave for surgery and the uncertainty surrounding all of that. Everything seemed to be coming crashing down at once.
To top it off, during the new boss' first 3 weeks on the job, despite having previously had good health, I had in rapid succession a) extremely painful ear infection for one week, immediately followed by b) a first, two-week bout with Shingles (painful), and c) loss of a front incisor tooth that had previously had a root canal done in childhood. I took virtually no time off for these medical issues since I had the pressures of a new boss that was clearly not pleased with anything I was doing ("If there were anything good to say (about my work), I'd say it") etc. Things fell apart at work, and I ended up taking leave prior to my surgery.
I just wanted to be able to get through my surgery, yet the pressures in the weeks before surgery continued to mount with long hours of new meetings and tasks that had not been on the agenda prior to the arrival of the new boss.
I must say that in the end, I was not surprised (but still amazed that this is true), there was absolutely NO contact from my employer prior to my surgery (or after surgery) to wish me well, wish me a smooth recovery etc. In prior roles, I'm managed work teams of up to a dozen people for more than a decade - and whether I was a manager or not, I'd always wish my colleagues a speedy recovery, encourage them to take the time needed to recover, ask what we could do for them during their recovery --- even when they were out for a cold/sickness/sickness of a child. It surprised me that my cancer center employer didn't even contact me to wish me well during my cancer surgery.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to surgery, as I took pre-surgery leave, I received emails on a few occasions that seemed to ask for a response. As soon as I responded, I was rather aggressively told I was not to be working on leave, not to read emails, etc. ... which I suspect was primarily to protect the employer. I am a very non-litigious individual, so it surprised me the forcefulness of the response. Also, on the day following my surgery, one of the first emails from my new boss announced in ALL CAPS a HIGH PRIORITY task that required attention immediately on my return where I was to assure that ALL questions were answered... no mention of my surgery, just business as usual. Furthermore, the email was addressed to many of my colleagues, and included a statement implying that my new boss "would have expected" all questions to have been answered by "the department" (but I was the only individual in the department cc'd - clearly implicating me in not doing my job) - in fact, I had checked all issues --- but now on leave, I could not respond to my new boss, nor clear my name with colleagues.
In balance, I guess I am, at age 61, dealing with a new generation of managers who do not involve themselves with their co-workers well-being, and expect to offer no empathy for a sick co-worker.
Other statements that were surprising coming from a cancer center:
- One co-worker, on hearing I had prostate cancer, said "well, at least it's only prostate cancer"
- A member of HR, on hearing that at one point, while trying to cover for several departed departmental employees - I was a bit overwhelmed working 12 hour days and needed to hire some help - I was told that "most salaried employees at the center know they have to work weekends and evenings and don't complain about it"
- A member of the HR department referred to the procedure I was to go through - a radical prostatectomy - as a "minor procedure"
I don't know if other men experience this, but there seems to be a public perception that "it's only prostate cancer" and that as such it is nothing to worry about. Well, as an individual wondering whether there has been metastatic or invasive spread, I don't think it is illogical to have some concerns, yet surprisingly, many cancer center colleagues didn't seem to think so.
When difficulties overwhelm you, where do you go for support?
I am fortunate to have several friends outside of work that are truly loving, caring, concerned individuals. Having cancer, I realized it was time to tell them that I truly love them - that I'm done just saying they are a friend. They have returned my expression of love to them - and that has truly been wonderful.
My wife has also been a trooper and has been supportive of me through the work situation that has been coincident with my cancer diagnosis. I still, however, feel the guilt of having been a lifelong primary breadwinner for our family, and now she is having to go back to work full time (though even full time, she can't get healthcare coverage for me!) - to make sure we don't sink our retirement options now - just 4 years shy of my retirement age.
Surprisingly, there has been little communication with my colleagues at the cancer center, and only through non-work channels (I think they are concerned that communicating with me might jeopardize their jobs - and in return, I'm concerned that if I use the email system, I'll be slapped back for doing so ... so there has been little communication with work or colleagues). At one point, HR said I was not "persona non grata", but after this experience, it has definitely felt that way.
I have categorically not been able to turn to work for support, and after a full (and I believe successful) career - to suddenly get the clear message from work I am not appreciated there - at the time I am having to focus on my cancer, has been hard.
There were actually moments in the weeks leading to my surgery that I felt I should just cancel surgery and let the cancer take its course - because of what seemed like a very callus attitude by my new boss and my employer. My world was falling apart, and they not only didn't seem to care, they still had to deliver the message to me that I had little value to them. In fact, the only way I've been able to get through this is to take the attitude "it is what it is"...and accept that whatever comes will come, and that for now, I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and work to get well.
How have your long-term goals or life goals changed since diagnosis?
At this point, my goals are just short term - get through my surgery, regain continence, and start feeling "normal" again.
I then need to resolve the "short term" issue of my work situation, which at best will be quite challenging. I expect to return to work with some mandates from work leading to relatively quick actions on their part to offer me a significant demotion or the "option" of resigning - and all that resignation implies.
I think my one long-term goal at this point is to start doing the things I really enjoy - being with friends I love, spending time with my wife/kids/dogs, and spending time in the wilderness doing photography, and in the woodshop building furniture.
I also need to resolve the work issue, re-employment etc...but I expect that will take 6 months or more to resolve.
What is your work arrangement right now? What are your hours?
I am currently on medical leave following surgery. I will only return when I have medical clearance to do so. Because of my work situation (described above), I am actually somewhat dreading the return to work, and what seems like a great risk that I will then be facing the extreme resentment of my new boss that had to do extra work in my absence.
I will say that being confronted with a massive work problem just when you are about to go through cancer treatment and recovery is extremely challenging. It is not a time you can easily apply for new jobs - because you can't schedule interviews immediately before or following surgery, and you don't know until after surgery when you will be back to being able to sit through interviews and have the energy to once again prove your worth to a (prospective) employer.
It is also a challenging time to have to start searching the internet for information on the Affordable Care Act, anticipating that your medical coverage may terminate shortly after return to work, and knowing that employer policy suggests you may not be able to collect your vacation time, and that your employer may choose to only pay out some of your vacation ... and it will be earned time that loses its medical coverage, loses what would have been contributions to a 401(k) plan, etc.
...a tough time to have to focus on tough work challenges, and a tough time to realize that there is no mandatory employer loyalty. You can work a lifetime paying in to health insurance, then be terminated or subjected to substantial cuts - just when you need support.
Since the diagnosis, what has changed in your work life?
- I'm not at work, I'm on medical leave, with an indeterminate return date, and indeterminate consequences from having been on leave.
I've been informed by my employer that I have not been doing my job (which came as a bit of a surprise after seeming to have met their objectives over the past 7+ years). I've been informed that more than a hundred people inside and outside of my work were consulted in concluding I have "no skills" - leaving me to wonder how I can ever apply for another job in the local job market. What has been said, and to whom?
What has helped you continue to work the most?
Professional contacts of mine outside of my work (and others) have encouraged me to leave my current employer, and have begun to network for me outside of my work. They are truly a godsend - kind, capable people with professional connections - that are actually being proactive in helping me. They have been wonderful. They have been shocked at the changes at my place of employment, and by the lack of any support (beyond granting of medical leave) by my employer.
What advice do you have for others trying to work through treatment?
Before treatment, contact the people you love and don't hesitate to tell them how much their support means, and to even ask them for support (and hugs!).
Recognize that your workplace may not be supportive and may take a very impersonal approach to handling your situation.
Recognize that your boss may not even acknowledge that you have cancer and need treatment. Don't let that attitude change your treatment strategy. You are important and you need to be an advocate for yourself and need to get through your treatment. Don't let work pressures make you even for a moment (as I did) consider not getting treatment.
How have you dealt with any side effects of treatment?
So far, side effects have primarily been related to pain and pain management, though this has been better than I'd anticipated. Thank goodness for a skilled surgical team and the inventors of the da Vinci robot, and the surgeons who pioneered minimally invasive robot-assisted radical prostatectomy treatment.
If "today's you" could give advice to "day-of-diagnosis you," what would you say?
Pay more attention to your health, be aggressive in pursuing your treatment and wellness. Ignore the pressures of work even if it means you become unemployed as a result. You won't be any good to anyone if you don't take care of yourself, and if your employer doesn't care, don't let that affect your self-esteem or your treatment plan (I let my employer's attitude affect both - and that, frankly, has been more difficult that the cancer and treatment).