You can't beat the convenience of working in the hospital where you're getting treated, that's for sure. But at times it can create a strange colliding of worlds - worlds that I may otherwise want to keep separate. Today I went from a meeting in high-backed chairs in a board room with several key members of the hospital right to the cancer center where I slunk into a chair in the waiting room to wait for my shot with the rest of the patients. In my suit, heels and Hartford Hospital name badge I know that I stick out among the others.
Sometimes it's hard to let myself transition between those two worlds. At times I have to make a very conscious effort to pull myself together. Now that my treatment is almost over I get very sad seing other patients. I saw a woman yesterday in the cancer center who was my age with four young daughters and her husband there with her. The family was so adorable and her kids were running into the bloodwork room hugging the nurses and giving them pictures they had drawn. It nearly broke my heart to think of this woman going through all that I have while trying to stay strong for her little girls. I tried to stay focused on the story drafts I had brought with me to review while I waited for my shot but it was nearly impossible to hold back the tears. Even just being there for a quick shot you feel vulnerable and helpless. The Neupogen shots burn like crazy and leave me achey and sore but with a deep breath and a Band-Aid I get through it. I tucked the printout of my blood count paperwork under my meeting folder and headed back to my office - several squirts of Purell along the way. I've learned to swallow the lump in my throat, take my patient hat off, put my employee hat back on and get back in the groove. And I am so grateful that I have that opportunity. If my "patient hat" was the only one I was wearing during this whole experience I never would have made it.
I really never considered not working during my cancer treatment. From the moment I was diagnosed I knew that if I could physically do it, I would keep my life as "normal" as possible. Over these past five months I've learned that normal doesn't exist and I'm happy about that. Normal is boring. Instead, let's say that I've been able to keep my life as "uninterrupted" as possible and being able to continue with my career has certainly helped that.
I'm lucky enough that the type of work that I do -- writing, editing, design, websites -- can be done remotely and with the digital world that we live in I can feel like I'm still part of the team sending e-mails back and forth just as I would if I were actually in my office. And I'm lucky enough to have a boss and a team that are more supportive than I ever could have imagined.
Now that I'm in the home stretch I've been at the office more - being a little more daring with my immune system, less worried knowing that the cancer is gone. I'm realizing that I need to ease into things and go easy on myself. I do a lot of internal kicking of myself after I feel like I say dumb things or miss office jokes. It's hard to be patient with my brain which processes still a little slower than it used to. Multitasking requires more work. I'm looking forward to the chemo brain effects fading. However, having chemo brain has actually taught me to be more effective. I am more focused than I ever was because I am more conscious of being focused. I am more organized than I ever was because I'm overly paranoid about losing or forgetting something. I am more diligent in rereading, editing, giving a very careful eye as I have lost that (what could be hasty) confidence in my skills. I keep detailed "To Do" lists and file all my notes, which I continually go back and review. My writing flows much easier than it ever has - maybe becuase it's abit more liquid up there in my head. I also have a much better perspective. I'll never again allow myself to get stressed over finding the right words for a headline or because I can't get a webpage to render correctly - I now know what's really worth stressing over. Call me crazy, but I think cancer has been a good thing for my career.
The one part that is tough is being the hairless kid at the meeting table. I don't even think about it within my deparment, but it does set in when I meet new people I may be working on projects with. I have a feeling that the scarves I wear are a pretty obvious indicator that I've been going through cancer treatment, but I always wonder what people are thinking. Do they treat me differently because of that? Do they doubt my capabilities? Do they think that I had some fluke accident where I singed off all of my hair? Do they look at me with pity and think that I'm on my way to the grave? It's times like that where I question whether I should have gotten a wig, but I know for me that I would have felt more uncomfortable with that - always worried that it was crooked or didn't fit right. I feel awkward even wearing lipstick. I've always been the au natural/mascara-and-lip-gloss only type so I suppose it's appropriate that the same would go for my choice of headwear. The tough part is that my hair isn't instantly going to grow back when I'm cured. There are many weeks of scarf wearing to go ... .
Despite all of these insecurities, what I've found is that people don't even react. During all of this I have never felt that I've been treated differently because I have cancer, that I've missed any opportunities because I have cancer, that people shied away from me or gave me breaks because I have cancer. Maybe it's because I work in the most empathatic setting you could pick, amid doctors and nurses who fully understand the realities of disease. Whatever it may be I know that I am extremly lucky to have been able to feel accomplished and keep learning and growing in my career throughout this fantastical world that is "cancer."
Cancer does not mean that you have to end your life as you know it. Sure, you'll have to make some major adjustments, but it does not mean that you have to curl up in a ball and await your fate. It's amazing to have witnessed first hand the strength that we all hold within ourselves and this is what allowed me to keep doing the things that make me happy despite my disease. That's not to say that there aren't days when you can do nothing but lie in bed because, believe me, there certainly are and being in a ball is the best thing you can do for yourself. Any time I was feeling really low my Dad would tell me to "dig deep." I've dug deeper than I ever knew I could and discovered things about myself I likely never would have without facing cancer.
A fellow Hodgkin's patient shared with me something that someone told him: "cancer is a thinking man's disease." You have an awful lot of time to think about life, about death, about your place in the world. The key to making it out of it alive is to be able to keep those thoughts in check and balance the big thoughts with the simple ones - like how much I love ice cream. For me, keeping my mind stimulated (and distracted when the heavy realities become too much ) has been just as important in my recovery as the chemo meds.