I remember when I had just finished treatment, people would ask, 'So, when are you going back to work?'. I think those who have never had cancer assumed that I would be back a few weeks after my last treatment while those who have had cancer kept saying to me 'Don't go back too soon. I went back too soon and I regretted it.' It ended up that one year was the right amount of time for me.
I remember asking my oncology surgeon how long I would need to be off from work (expecting her to say three or four months) and when she said it would be about a year, I was in shock. I can't take a year off work! I can't afford to take a year off work! Who is going to cover me? How am I supposed to keep my student loan payment schedule? I can't substitute a full time, paying job with cancer, I'll go crazy. And eventually, I slowly realized that I had to become the priority, not my job, not my employer, not my student loans but my health, it needs to be the priority. And while I was off, although I felt some guilt, I did learn that the time I was taking was to heal and it was necessary not optional.
My decision to go back was an easy one. I felt ready, I needed a routine again that didn't involve chemo or hospitals or needles. I needed to be needed again - a feeling that I missed ever since I was diagnosed. So, a year after I left, I went back to my job. I started with 20 hours a week and increased five hours a week until I was full time again. As I gradually started back, it was easy to distinguish between who I was as a person and what I do as a job. Before cancer, I worked a lot, usually about 45-50 hours a week, and although I was often too tired to go out after work, and many times vegging on the couch was what I did most week nights, I liked working. After I went back to work this past March, I vowed that I would never let myself get like that again. I know how precious life can be, I know how important relationships are and how unimportant 'stuff' is and no matter how much money you make, it will never be enough.
I've now been back to work now for three months. I love having a routine, I certainly don't think I went back too early, and I feel like I'm being depended on - all aspects of work that I really missed while I was off. But sometimes I struggle with being a full time employee and a full time cancer survivor. Although for everyone 'else' cancer is over, for me it's just beginning. This is the best way I know how to describe it - when I was first diagnosed, I was numb and while everyone around me was 'freaking out', I was able to ground myself, look at what had to be done and do it. While everyone else was trying to process what was going on, I was in fight or flight mode. I didn't have a chance to process what was happening to me. While I was in chemo, I felt like saying 'Well, yes, I am 'technically' in chemo, but it's just a precaution' because for me, I treated it like it wasn't that serious, I guess it was a coping mechanism. Then, when treatment ended and everyone else took a huge sigh of relief, I looked back at the passed six months and thought 'Holy shit! I just had cancer.' Now while everyone else is moving on, I feel like I am just starting to deal with it now. I am not faced with nearly as many physical challenges now as I was and now I am dealing with the emotional challenges that got pushed to the side while I was dealing with the vomiting, the bone pain, the PICC line, the hair loss, the no-boob and so on and so on. Like I said, I find it exhausting to be both a full time employee and a full time cancer survivor (not to mention the chemo-recovery fatigue and the Tamoxifen fatigue).
I'm writing this blog entry today to say that I feel like I have failed at being the 'good cancer survivor' that I set out to be. This week I am working a seven day week. I swore that I would never do that to myself again and here I am, in that situation. Why is it that when we're in the thick of things, we're surrounded by clarity but when we're in a less chaotic, more routine-like way of life, we forget to stop and smell the roses. I've broken so many promises to myself now that I'm 'better' and I know in the long run that I will be the one who pays for it. I like my job and I have great co-workers but I have turned into the person that I promised myself that I wouldn't. For what? Money? And, I think I can speak for many survivors when I say, after having cancer, you feel an obligation to give back and to make a difference for the next person who is about to face what you faced. I want to come home from work feeling like I've helped someone get through a rough cancer day. I want to work in the cancer field helping people. Now, all of a sudden, my current job doesn't seem as fulfilling as it did pre-cancer.
I'm not trying to imply that I think everyone should quit their jobs and live on love but there needs to be a balance between who you are and what you do. I need to worry about me as much as I worry about money and student loans and car payment. I need to do something that makes me happy. When is the last time you asked yourself that? Instead of doing what is expected of me or what I'm supposed to do or what I have to do, what could I do that makes me happy? It's so easy to get caught up in our day to day lives, that we end up letting our life pass us by. I mean, it's already July! Didn't we just ring in the New Year? I feel like I'm watching my life pass me by instead of living it. We only get one crack at this whole life thing and mine was almost taken from me last year. I know better than to let my life control me instead of the other way around.