By Ibby Caputo
Cancer survivors often struggle to get back to form on the job
By Ibby Caputo
Three years ago, I was sitting in my hospital bed with a pizza box on my legs, in the middle of treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia. I was watching in amazement as pitcher Jon Lester won the decisive game of the 2007 World Series for the Boston Red Sox. Only a year earlier, at age 22, Lester had been treated for anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But on that October day, his pitches had the speed, energy and accuracy of a champion. I remember thinking: I want a comeback like his.
Lester made returning to work look easy. Yet when I called him recently for an interview, I discovered that the transition was as challenging as it is for most survivors. “That whole year had a lot of ups and downs for me,” Lester says. “Physically and emotionally.”
I know the feeling. During treatment, your focus is to stay alive, but afterward is a whole new ballgame. You’re dealing with physical limitations, such as fatigue and chronic pain, and coping with fears of both recurrence and loss of health insurance. On top of it all, you’re deciding how much to disclose to your colleagues and employer.
For me, performance expectations were a major source of stress. I had finished journalism school just before my diagnosis, and after treatment I landed an internship with the Washington Post as a health reporter—my equivalent of making it to the World Series. I never let on about my chronic pain or fatigue, working from home on really bad days. Other days, I took surreptitious naps in the office.
Sometimes I felt guilty and worried I would be pegged as a slacker. Instead, more than a dozen of my articles were published, and after the internship ended, I was hired as a web producer. But the job didn’t allow for much more than a bathroom break, let alone naps. What’s more, spending the day in front of a computer screen severely irritated my already-dry eyes, a result of cancer treatment. I also learned that I had cataracts, which would require surgery.
I could no longer trust that if I pushed myself to work longer and harder, I would do better. In fact, the reverse seemed to be true: When I pushed myself too hard, I’d spend the next day in bed, achy and devoid of energy.
(photo: © AP Photo / David J. Phillip)