Returning to work after my Breast Cancer
Trials & Tribulations: Beating the Odds
My Marmoirs: The True Story of a Head on a Stick (Continued from last issue)
Returning to work after my Breast Cancer
Working hard or hardly working?
I still remember the extraordinary feeling that swept over me as I heard the words, “You’re cancer free.” It was like angels sang, or was it the voices in my head? Either way, I was ready to get on with my life now that I was relatively sure that I would actually have one.
It didn’t take long for me to question what my shiny, new life would look like. The obvious choice was for me to do what I loved: teach. As I reminisced about my career as a teacher prior to “the incident,” I found myself becoming increasingly thrilled at the prospect of a major comeback on the elementary school scene.
With the help of my insurance company (and by “help” I mean after I received the following message: “Go back to work. We’re not paying you anymore.”), the school board, and my new principal, a “return to work” plan emerged detailing the conditions under which I would return to teaching. I would return slowly, increasing my time with baby steps. I was psyched and ready to be my old self again at last.
I’ve never been good at taking baby steps, which would prove difficult given the nature of my return to work plan. As much as I fear change, when I do go ahead and make one, it tends to be big. My re-entry to the profession of teaching was no exception. Not only did I jump in with both tingly feet (another chemo side effect), but I went at it with the zeal of a never-had-cancer lunatic. I was energized and dedicated to making a difference.
In September, I was a woman on a mission to prove that cancer had not gotten the best of me. I got to work early, gave 100% and tried to be everything to everyone. In spite of my best intentions, however, over time I realized that it was impossible to be my old self. As much as I had eagerly jumped back into the workplace, the reality was that I was losing more and more energy every day. I strained to keep up with my work demands.
I struggled to remember deadlines, using sticky notes by the dozen in a desperate attempt to keep everything straight. I became increasingly anxious about my inability to multitask, knowing I was dropping the ball too often but feeling powerless to do better.
By mid-October, insomnia plagued me as I lay awake every night worrying about how I would get through the next day. In the end, I fell prey to depression. Clearly, my grandiose dream of getting my old life back had bombed.
In keeping with my plan, I increased from 2 half days in September to 4 half days over the course of 3 months; I was to teach 4 full work days following the Christmas holidays.
As a dedicated professional woman, it nearly killed me to accept that I wouldn’t be able do it. Pre-cancer, I had worked hard to master the demands of my profession.
Now, not only was I terrified to commit to an increase in work, but I knew in my heart that I could not successfully handle what was currently on my plate. By November, I begrudgingly admitted, to myself first and then to the school board, that I was in over my head.
In the end, I decreased my time once more and finally, in March, left on a self-directed unpaid leave of absence from my short-lived teacherpalooza. I was comforted (if not miffed) by certain unequivocal truths that had emerged from my experience. Breast cancer had changed me. My body and mind were nowhere near done healing and no one could predict how long a full recovery would take, not even me.
The first and hardest step was accepting that I was not Superwoman, and giving myself permission to just be me. There is a certain peace that came with finally, maybe for the very first time ever, putting myself first.
Today, two years after my botched return to work and five years after my breast cancer diagnosis, I am eagerly planning my new and improved return to teaching in the fall. I still dream big and have goals for the future, but now I plan on keeping one foot firmly planted in reality. This time around, my goal is not to be the old me again, but to be the best, healthiest and most balanced new me I can be. Surely that will set me up for true, lasting success.
Marcie Nolan is a Writing Consultant for the Centre for Students with Disabilities at the University of Guelph. Her book can be purchased online at www.headonastick.ca. $1 of each book sold will be donated to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton, Ontario.