August 17, 2018
I got asked about 2 months ago if I would tell my story to a women’s networking group at the office. I said sure. I put a slide deck together that talked about our Wellness program – how it’s underutilized and not communicated well enough, at least in my opinion.
I called it, “Defining Wellness – It’s More than Standup Desks and Branded Water Bottles.” I gave the WHO definition of Wellness and one from the National Wellness Center. There was one quote that stuck out at me from one of the websites – “Your health is an investment, not an expense.” How often do we see it that way? That any trip to the doctor is a hassle and a time suck and stay focused on what it’s taking us from rather than what it’s doing for us?
I talked about things that we can and do at the office to promote wellness, like running clubs, water challenges, book clubs, taking the stairs, and a few others. After checking with our benefits coordinator to make sure I wasn’t misspeaking, I went over the other programs available to us free of charge. Then I talked about some of the wellness initiatives provided by our health insurance, which includes well-woman visits, mammograms, depression and diabetes screenings, and the additional services available for families.
Then I got to the fun part. What happens when you don’t put your health first. As I’ve said before, I’ve let my weight get out of hand more than a couple times during my adult life. Because I’m struggling with chemo side and after effects, most of which either cause me pain or completely sap my energy, it’s hard for me to even get out for a walk. I’m looking forward to being able to do this again after this chemo is done and the poison is out of my system.
So what happens when you let yourself go and you don’t check in with a doctor much in 6 years? You might get cancer. You might have a heart attack. You might have blood sugar issues, and you might have a problem with depression that needs to be evaluated and treated. This isn’t, of course, the stuff that happens just because your BMI is too high. It happens because you’re letting stress control your life, or life has thrown you some curve balls like your kid gets sick or in trouble, you or a family member get sick, or your marriage implodes.
I told them all my story. That I hadn’t had a mammogram in 8 years. Hadn’t had a boyfriend in 4 and hadn’t done a breast self exam probably in that same amount of time. I had no family history or other reason that I should be worried about finding a tumor in my breast other than I didn’t have kids.
The effects of this diagnosis on my career are so far not horribly impactful. Thankfully, I still have a job. I know there are places that will let you go immediately when something goes wrong, and I’m thankful every day to work in a place where the company culture puts its employees first. I’m grateful every day that I work for a place that pays for good quality insurance. I’ve seen what chemo costs and my out of pocket has been pretty reasonable all things considered.
Then I talked about how and who to talk to at the office about getting diagnosed. It’s not a thing where I suggested shouting it from the rooftops. I didn’t do that, either, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it anyway. There are a number of key people that I had private conversations with so that I could find out what the next steps were, and also to ensure that my then current project was appropriately wrapped up before rolling off. I know lots of other people are even more private than I am at the office, and I can respect that, but there are people that you need to tell to ensure that they don’t think you’ve suddenly turned into a complete flake that can’t be trusted to do the work.
I’ve worked really hard for the 5 years I’ve worked for this company. I’ve made a lot of positive changes both for myself and for the projects I’ve worked on. The company values what I bring to the table. I don’t want to jeopardize that. I got feedback from a couple of people in leadership positions that talking it through with them at the beginning was so much better than not talking to them or waiting longer before letting them know that I needed some work to do that gave me some flexibility to go to my appointments and still be productive for the company. And it’s not just about giving myself to the company. I need the distraction sometimes. I need to be around and talking to people, especially after basically being quarantined int he house for 7 months. I need to feel useful. I get those needs met by being able to work, even if it’s a low-threshold project. One of the things I get back is that I am more able to be earning PTO just a tiny bit faster than I’m using it, so I don’t have to worry about running out by the end of the year.
There were some things that I was pretty naive in my thinking at the beginning of the process that I had to get really honest with myself and my management team about a couple of months into my treatments. Things like whether or not I could still be client-facing even though I couldn’t travel and wouldn’t likely be able to work in the office until cold and flu season passed. I didn’t have a good handle on how much time off I’d need. It didn’t help that I got sick enough at the end of January to burn through my entire sick leave, which I’d wanted to use to offset the chemo appointments. And I didn’t have a clue what kind of help I’d need at home or work to get through 5 months of chemo. I had a better idea about surgery recovery, and I had no idea about radiation.
I talked through why someone like me needs to sign up for FMLA and who to talk with to make sure that you’re correctly enrolled. Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) has been immensely helpful in dealing with the shock and emotions that have been hard to face and handle sometimes following this diagnosis. It helps when I feel let down by people who say they’re going to do something for me and then never show up. I reinforced the idea that I don’t want to live, eat, breathe and talk about cancer 24×7. There are a lot of days that I’d rather hear about someone else’s life – what their kids are doing, what they did on vacation, or just about anything not cancer related.
I think one of the most important things I had to say, after repeating several times to make sure that these women knew to keep on top of their screenings, was that they need to support each other, and I gave some specific ways to do that.
- Ask if your friend/coworker would like company.
- Offer to bring a meal or start a meal chain.
- Offer to drive to an appointment or two.
- Offer to lend an ear if needed.
- Offer to talk about anything but what your friend/coworker is going through if that’s what they need.
After I was done, the manager that had asked me to do this talk complimented me on how strong I am and how well I’m handling this whole situation. I keep saying… cancer only allows you to do this one day at a time. There is so much of it that is out of my control that there is no other way than just putting one foot in front of the other each day. This is how I’ve always done things that I didn’t want to do or struggled with. I got up and just kept at it, knowing that eventually things would turn around. They always did, and continue to do so. It still feels really nice to be recognized as someone who has their act together.
I only hope that I can get one of the women on the call to go get screened early enough so that they don’t have to go through the level of treatment that I am. I wish I’d been more diligent and had caught this at Stage 1 instead of Stage 2/3. I probably wouldn’t be fighting with a Stage 4 disease today had that been the case. It’s all about lessons learned.