The Realities of Working While Going Through Cancer

by Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel
Being diagnosed with cancer is difficult enough, but needing to work to keep the family afloat creates a whole new set of challenges. For many families, there may be some short term health benefits to ease the financial strain. Since my diagnosis in 1990, there is now Critical Illness Insurance which filled the gap that Disability Insurance did not meet. Others are out of luck – no insurance.

What Options Do You Have?

Do you have a spouse who can carry the load while you recover? Although this sounds like a great solution, often the spouse needs time off work to deal with your situation. There are doctor’s appointments, recovery days, and emotional hurdles, as well as children who need attention from someone as they are stressed and uncertain.

Recalling those days myself, it was difficult. At that time, I was the one supporting the family. And, I had just left one job and was about to start a new one when I got my diagnosis. That meant neither one of us had a steady income to draw on.

This is the time when family and friends really need to step up and help out. Hopefully, this is an option for you. It certainly was the case for me as I was unable to work during treatment. Having my husband home to deal with the day to day running of the house and keeping on top my son’s activities was a bonus on one hand, but definitely caused us financial stress. In time, along with other major issues, it was the camel that broke the elephant’s back.

I’ve also heard stories – many stories – of women who have been abandoned by their spouses when diagnosed with cancer. Abandoned and left to cope with not only their diagnosis and treatment, but also needing to provide support – emotional, physical and financial – for young children. My heart goes out to these women. Just when you need help the most, it must seem like the dark night of the soul – so lonely and frightening.

Life is not fair. It shows us all too regularly that bad stuff happens to good people. I recall reading ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’ by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. It helped me think through the whole issue of life with its challenges and the ‘why me’ question that arises when diagnosed with cancer. Well worth a read. It sure helped me.

How then does one cope?

1. Find help – family and/or friends.

Have someone take charge and organize such activities as:

Driving and picking up children from school
After school care if needed, including sport activities
Meal preparation – especially for the family as your taste buds will be ‘off’.
Grocery shopping
Support and company to appointments and treatments
Facebook page to keep everyone up to date on progress without you having to speak to everyone individually.

The Cancer agencies often have volunteers who will provide some of the above, but not all. Home care might be an option as well in some areas.

2. Streamline expenses

This might mean cutting back on extras and getting down to basics. Short term loans to carry you through until you can get back to work. This might take some time depending on the intensity of your treatment plan. You will likely need at least six months if not a year to ease yourself back into the workforce.

3. Develop a Family Plan

Children, even young children, can help out and take responsibility for some things that need doing. When children are included in negotiations and brainstorming, you will be surprised how resilient they can be and eager to participate. It’s a good learning experience and gives them something positive to focus on rather than your situation. Of course, the activities and tasks need to be age appropriate.

Your spouse may need to make arrangements for time off to be present for appointments. He will also be stressed, frightened and uncertain about the future.

4. Find a Support Group and/or Counseling

Cancer affects the whole family. The emotional upheaval is often overlooked but it is a critical part of the whole journey. Everyone has fear and uncertainty – even anger. Anger seems to surprise some, but it is part of the grieving process. Not convenient or pleasant for sure, but not uncommon. It may take counseling for the whole family to allow everyone to voice their emotions and concerns. You, the patient, need to focus on your own journey. Your resources may not be sufficient to deal with everyone else’s concerns plus heal yourself.

5. Your Employer

This one can be difficult because not every employer understands the ramifications of a cancer diagnosis. Some are incredibly helpful, supportive, and are open to allowing you time to heal and then ease back into full time work. These are the great employers.

Then there are those who are only thinking of the bottom line. You are now a liability. I’ve heard many people share that they were let go when it was found out they had cancer. It’s why so many people do not tell anyone about their diagnosis and try to work through treatment with a brave face, fearful of being found out. How sad, but unfortunately, true.

These are the extremes of reaction. Sometimes you just get caught off guard – pleasantly or unpleasantly. It would be a wonderful world if people treated others as they would like to be treated – the Golden Rule. But it is not life’s reality.

6. Have a Back Up Plan

One of the most interesting aspects of this journey is what people do when facing the reality of life. Their mortality! Suddenly there is the realization that a long healthy life is not guaranteed. It’s a gift.

There are so many instances where people have through this devastating diagnosis taken a good, long, hard look at life as they know it, evaluate whether this is what they really want to do, and bravely step into a whole new world of opportunity. This world includes new occupations, picking up talents they had abandoned, moves to places they always wanted to live, shift in lifestyle to reflect who they truly are, not what is expected of them, and so much more. The stories are truly inspiring and uplifting.

It’s the realization that life is short. If it’s going to be done, it needs to be now. There are no guarantees and safety is an illusion.

My Own Reality

As a working mom when I was diagnosed at age 47 with a 14 year old son at home, I was thrown into the grinder of how to make the whole process work. Fortunately, I had my husband’s family support as they were close by. My own family was across the continent, but kept in touch by phone. My many friends were there to provide a listening ear, outings to reflect normal, healing suggestions, but mostly love and caring. One of the biggest sources of help and inspiration was my cancer buddy. We went through everything together – the good, the bad and the ugly – sharing triumphs and defeats. Neither of us knows how we would have managed without each other.

Life did shift for me. I made huge changes – started over again as a single Mom, no health, no money, but determination to get well and be there for my son. It took a stint on welfare to ease through the financial crisis, but I used the time and resources to re-educate myself. This led to a new job and a new career path. Eventually I’ve come back to me – my first passion – dance and creativity. Life does come full circle. In my first profession, I was a professional dancer. I love what I do. It’s where I’m supposed to be – helping others move through the healing journey.

I do understand the process and what it takes to come out the other side. Even when life seems to be turning against you, there is hope that it can turn out alright. It takes courage to dig deep, be humble enough to ask for help, show gratitude, and count the blessings that are really there but may be hidden in the moment. In the process, you will find your true friends, and most importantly, your authentic self.

To finding your way,

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