Not Down Or Out

It could be worse. I might not be laughing.

Month: November, 2011

It’s Not All About Me

You have to be a friend to have a friend. I believe that. I am not the only person traveling this road. I have family and friends who are walking with me.

On October 29th Barb’s sister called to say that their mom was not waking. Barb’s mom was on dialysis for a couple of months before she decided to terminate treatment. It only took about a week for her body’s toxicity to bring her to the brink of death. Barb had been out to see her mom only a week before that. She wanted to be there again, but she had work to do. She was thinking that she could fly out to see her mom in the coming week. First she had to go to court on two different matters. She wished that were not the case, but, like anyone who lives far from family, she was not free to drop what she was doing and go to her mom’s side.

I have been in similar situations several times in my life. I have stayed at my desk working. I have dropped what I was doing to fly home. I have flown home and been pursued doggedly by a partner who did not respect my family’s need for my time and attention. I have refused to sacrifice family for work and been punished for it. There is no easy way to be the person you want to be when your time has ceased to be your own. I have met few people whose time is their own.

Barb and I met the next day to go to mass together. We lit candles for our families and prayed for strength to handle whatever might be coming in our lives. In the minutes before the mass started a “senior” rose from his pew and walked slowly up to the church’s beautiful grand piano. He sat on the bench and studied the keys. Then he began to play Amazing Grace.

Both of us cried. We bent our heads forward so that our hair concealed our expressions, but we could not help but identify for own reasons with that plaintive and yet graceful expression of thanks for God’s love. When he finished playing, the man returned to his seat. He was not part of the mass, but he was part of its ministry to my soul.

An hour later we were at Barb’s office. We sometimes get together on weekends and work on our respective matters separately in the same space. We call this “study hall.” We had picked up some lunch at Whole Foods and were seated at her firm’s conference table eating. Barb checked her phone messages. Her sister and brother had called to say that she needed to fly out that day to be sure she could see her mom before her mom died.

Barb could envision a way to reschedule her Wednesday court date but not her Monday hearing. She wanted to call her partners and ask if one of them could appear for her the next morning. One partner was traveling and unreachable. The other had personal reasons for being unwilling to appear in court the next morning. Watching a good friend struggle over her desire to be with her family and her responsibility to her client was difficult.

A colleague from Roosevelt University has told paralegal students that there are three things you do not trust to the care of an attorney: plants, pets, and people. That is an exaggeration, but not a falsehood.

I worked with a partner who once received a call from her boss who said, “I understand you are home today because you’re having a miscarriage. You’d better be bleeding to death because I needed your help today.” I told a partner that I needed to take it easy after my father’s death. I wanted to be taken off of a client’s case so that I would have time to handle my grief and family matters. The partner said, “We’re your family now. If you can just focus on work for the next six or seven years you can become a partner here. Then you can spend time with your family.” When my Grandma F died, a partner from my firm insisted that the sexton rush a fax to the graveside so that I could comment on it. The deal to which it related would not close for five more months. I once went to the hospital thinking I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a seizure of my esophagus. A client called during the hours when I was at the hospital for evaluation. He said to my secretary, “In the event she dies today will someone else get my memo out to me tonight? I’d really like to have it tomorrow.” My ex-husband worked for a partner who used to say, “A friend in need is no friend of mine.”

I volunteered to go to court for Barb because she matters to me.

She changed her tickets from a Wednesday evening departure to a departure for later in the day. She asked the airline to waive a reservation change fee for compassionate reasons. It refused to do so. I guess lawyers aren’t the only insensitive people. She handed me her file to review. I also looked at an employment policy manual to identify support for the termination of an employee. Barb had to submit something the next morning for an unemployment hearing for a family business. She contacted the other counsel on her Wednesday court matter and arranged for a continuance of the matter.

An hour later we were in my car. I drove her to her home so she could pack a suitcase. I was not yet able to walk up the stairs in her home so I sat on the sofa in her study and waited while she packed and searched for some photos to post at a memorial service if her mom did not survive.

Then I drove Barb to the airport, drove to my house to pack a bag, and drove to my mom’s house. It was easier to drive to the courthouse from my mom’s home than from mine.

Barb’s “Mim” died the next evening with her three children and other family around her.

This is what love is all about. Whether we talk about family or friends we need to help each other do the things that matter. Barb has visited me in the hospital, joined me for doctor’s appointments, and supported me in troubling times. I do the same for her.

I like to say that life is like air travel. We may encounter some turbulence during our flight. In that event that we lose air pressure oxygen masks may drop. Take your own mask and put it on before helping someone else don her mask. That makes sense, but sometimes we don’t have to choose who to put first. I am reminded of an entry in one of my favorite books, Hugh Prather’s Notes on Love and Courage. He wrote:

Is your first responsibility to yourself? The question is misleading; that is, it misleads the person who takes it to heart. It’s like asking, must you shift your weight in order to walk. Of course you must, but anyone who concentrates first on shifting his weight will not walk well.

I know Barb feels alone now. Her brother has his wife and daughter. Her sister has  her ex and her two children. Barb is single. She feels that keenly now that both of her parents have passed. But she will not always feel that way because she has opened her life to friends who love and support her. All of us have opportunities to reach out to a friend in a moment of need. No matter how much suffering we experience in our own lives we can still give to others.

I look around me and see lots of people smiling through pain in part because of the support of others. My mom is suffering from gout and arthritis, but she shops almost every week for a friend who must stay home on a respirator. My sister Kathy has been dealing with some health problems. She has a business to run and some employees who refuse to work together. But she is busily writing letters to protest my treatment at work. My brother Danny has to live in Texas by himself until he and his wife can sell their home and live together in Texas. He makes himself available for late night calls from a friend going through divorce. My friend Roberta has already supported two parents and a sister through the end of their lives. She is settling her sister’s estate. But she sends me a funny card every couple of days to cheer me up. My cousin Susie has a new grandbaby, her own health issues, and a recent experience of helping a brother through his battle with cancer, but she calls every few days to see how I am doing. My friend Kim is a single mom with a busy life, but she has offered to come up to help me during radiation and chemotherapy. My friend Dominique has kids at home, a busy job, and various opera engagements, but she has offered to take a day off to take me to treatment. My friend Mary has a family, a very demanding job, and a mom and a brother she is trying to look after. She calls every couple of days. She has paid for a housekeeper to clean my home while I’m in treatment. My friend Paul has just stood by a friend during a long battle with cancer. His father is not well. His mom needs his loving support. He is about to move to a new home. He is extremely busy at work. But he calls to see how I am doing. He drops what he is doing to listen when I call to talk about how I feel about how my life is changing.

I could go on, but have made my point. As they say in the Bounty paper towel commercials, “Life is messy.” You can wish it were different or you can accept life the way it is and make the most of it by opening the doors and welcoming others to share your journey. I am grateful for the people who walk this road with me. I hope they know that I am available to help them if they need me. It’s not all about me. It’s about us. All of us.

Out or Not?

I decided to blog about my experiences after one of my employers decided to reassign my students to other sections because I was diagnosed with cancer. It was not my first impulse. My first impulse was to tell my employers so that they would know why I was in the hospital. I would tell my family and my close friends. My mom often speaks of my secretiveness. It is not my nature to broadcast my personal matters.

I rarely discuss my health with people. When you open the door to discussion of a topic it is difficult to cordon off any portion of that topic. Many years ago I went on a diet that required me to give up eating solid food for about eleven months. I managed a hotel at the time. The decision to not eat in the dining room of the hotel affected other people. For example, my chef needed to know why I was not eating. Once I told someone, everyone knew what I was doing. I can still recall working late one night when a waiter stopped by my office to tell me about his diagnosis with HIV. In those days, HIV did not have any “successful” treatment options. The nature of the disease had yet to be determined. People diagnosed with the disease often were shunned because of ignorance about their disease or ignorance about the cause of their disease. It was associated with homosexuality, which was an independent rationale for some to discriminate.

I worked with many gay and lesbian employees in the hospitality industry. Prior to the advent of HIV as an epidemic, these employees had been casual about their sexual orientation. After the disease became a subject for news stories, some of these employees became more private about their personal lives. It became very important to appear healthy. Employees “worked out” and discussed their physical exercise activities. It was a substitute for asserting HIV negative status.

This young man disclosed his diagnosis because he was looking for emotional support from people in the workplace. He was new to D.C. and had few friends in the area that were not coworkers. He had been intimate with at least one coworker and anticipated some emotional reaction from that person to his news. He expressed his fear with anger. He said something like, “I expect you know what it’s like to be a social freak, being fat and all. Only you think you can get well. I don’t have that option, do I?”

He was not the only person to react with fear that day. I was not angry, but my response was something like, “Do you really think overweight people are freaks?”

Of course he did. We shared our discomfort with other people’s perceptions of us. As long as we did not discuss our personal situations with others, polite people did not weigh in. Once we shared our situations with others we were subject to vocalized and privately held judgments about our personal lives.

I am now being treated for cancer that is very likely the result of my continued weight battle. I have been asked what caused my cancer after I have disclosed my current condition to people close to me. People do not ask this because they mean to hold me responsible for my illness. Nevertheless, there are times when I feel defensive about the relationship between my body weight and uterine cancer. Having had my class taken away, I now have a second reason for fearing people’s reactions to my condition. How do you dispel fear if you hide?

I once received an invitation to meet two friends for lunch at a “hole in the wall” restaurant. We rarely socialized together even though we had known each other for some time. One of them was a friend. The other was becoming one. I sensed that the meeting was very important to them but had no idea why. I tried to move the lunch to a restaurant that I would enjoy more after I reviewed the online menu and learned that the principal ingredient of meals was goat. The other two were adamant that we eat in this restaurant. So I went.

While I searched the menu for a meal that would not require me to stretch my palate more than necessary, they exchanged meaningful looks. I realized that we were not there for the food. “What’s up?” I asked.

They disclosed to me that they were followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. I lived in Washington, D.C. for about eighteen years and my sole exposure to the teachings of Rev. Moon involved efforts made by his followers to expand their ranks by proselytizing. When my college friends and I would wander into the Georgetown neighborhood to shop or dine or drink we ran a gauntlet of cult enthusiasts’ tables. The Unification Church and the Church of Scientology each vied for my attention. At one time in my life I owned four unread copies of Dianetics.

I reacted to this new disclosure by saying nothing. I understood how vulnerable these two people felt. Internally I was stunned. They had feared that I would reject them for deeply held, deeply personal beliefs. So they were “Moonies.” It did not change my feelings toward them. It did change my feelings about the Unification Church. It is difficult not to expand your notions of “normal” when you allow yourself to learn about others. How do you dispel fear if you do not trust?

I understand why some find it more comfortable to hide their orientation, their relationships with persons to whom they are not married, their religious beliefs, their political views, and their health histories. Once you are “out” it is tough to stop people from commenting. You have no control either over people’s internal judgments. However, I am inclined to trust even strangers with some of my vulnerabilities in the hope that they will open their hearts and respond to my disclosures with outward respect and internalized acceptance.

I would be dishonest if I did not admit that it would be easier to keep my cancer a secret from most people who know me. Already I have been judged for it. But I cannot effectively protect my rights as a cancer survivor without mobilizing others on my behalf. To mobilize others I have to speak about my private life. If I do not return to DePaul College of Law I will have to explain the school’s decision to terminate my teaching in the middle of a semester. At that point I also will be vulnerable to ignorance and prejudice.

I am told I am welcome to return to teaching there when I return to the “fullness of life.” I have no idea what that means. I am going to have radiation and chemotherapy. If I lose my hair or look sick will I again be excluded? Is that less than full life? I probably had my cancer for a decade during which it was a secret and my competence was unquestioned. At this point, I understand that I am cancer free, yet I am viewed as unreliable because I shared my diagnosis with a supervisor. Admitting my condition will expose me to more judgments.

The alternative is, for me, cowardly.

I can still remember when I was a younger woman with friends whose expressions of love and sexuality exposed them to the risk of unwed pregnancy. At the time, this was morally questionable behavior. I supported several friends who terminated pregnancies rather than tell family and friends that they engaged in premarital sex or unprotected sex. A doctor later informed one of these women that she was infertile. She still regrets deeply her decision to have an abortion. Today, when many children are born outside of marriage, her decision would attract less critical attention. I know she wishes she had been braver when she was younger.

Private matters sometimes involve personal choices. In the society in which we live people are not always following social rules that visit discrimination on the children of unwed parents. They are not always finding others’ religious beliefs suspect. They are not always declaring gay people to be sinners. They are not always mocking overweight people. They are not always judging cancer survivors to be unreliable. These incremental gains in acceptance have come from people acknowledging their personal choices, owning their identities, and, by doing so, challenging stereotypes.

If I mean to answer discrimination with education, then I have to be willing to risk hearing or being the subject of more unpleasant judgments. I need to dispel fear with openness and trust. I’m starting small—telling current and former students and business associates. But I hope there will be a time when coming out about my cancer will neither mean getting shut out of my profession nor called out for my personal struggle with my weight.

If you have a problem with that then I have a problem with you. Bring it on, baby.

Raising the Stakes

On October 27th I went to the hospital to discuss my treatment with oncologists. Barb went with me for support. We met my new doctor, Dr. H, a general oncologist who has worked with my surgeon back before he became one of the first gynecologists to specialize in oncology. It was surprising to see how little of my medical file was sent to the new surgeon–just the pathology report prepared after my operation.

Dr. H had two residents following her. They bent over her shoulder to study her moves, filled in info on pages while she wrote on the same page, and ran to get things. Dr. Z must be the more senior resident. He was the only one that she introduced. It fell to him to hover as they tried to find my pathology report. Dr. H could find no record of me except the source of referral. Barb and I were looking at each other with wide eyes.  If we had come for no reason . . . . Ahh, it turned up in the file with someone else’s patient info glued on the front of it. Barb was about to go to the fax room to shake it out of them when everything turned to smiles again.

Then the doctors stared at the report, speaking aloud, discussing me at great length. There are two types of uterine cancer. Mine was the less serious, not a sarcoma, and mine was fed by estrogen. But there were two tumors. The original one was buried deep in the muscle wall of the uterus. This is a factor that makes my prognosis more high risk as it means the cancer was close to breaking through to the abdomen. The cancer had spread to the right fallopian tube. That affected the stage of my cancer. There was cancer going close to the cervix. This also affected the stage. There are lymph nodes in the area that lead to the aorta. If the cancer spreads that far there is risk it will spread via the bloodstream. Had the nodes been removed and tested? No. Dr. H called the surgeon. He was out. She eventually got his senior resident on the phone. No, the nodes were not visible and the decision was made not to hunt for them at the time of surgery. The decision ended up having serious effects on my treatment.

I have a hernia. I’m guessing it blocked the surgeon from exploring further. Much discussion ensued. I had been told after surgery that my cancer was grade one (nonaggressive) and stage three (not terminal but advanced). I had researched this and seen on the Internet that the chance of survival for five years was 58-47%, depending on sub-classification within stage three. I thought my case sounded like the best case under stage three, but my survival rate could drop down toward 45%. But Dr. H dismissed those ratings as outdated even though they were the only ones I had found after much reading. Under the FIGO staging system I was only stage IB. This category has a 91% survival rate after five years!

Barb and I looked at each other and there were tears of happiness because this was a much better prognosis than we had expected. Of course, there were still the unknown factors affecting staging due to the possible involvement of the unexamined lymph nodes, but I was already a high risk case within my stage. So we turned to treatment.

The doctor has a patient at my stage who is pursuing radiation alone and is satisfied. The doctor said she rarely treats people of my education level so she was not going to tell me what I had to do but would lay out my options. She went through the most current protocols. I could have radiation alone or radiation and chemotherapy. She started to pull up study results. She phoned a friend with a study ongoing. She brought in a member of a clinical trial team to discuss their study with me. She read the study results to me. She gave me my pathology report so that Barb and I could read it ourselves.

We decided against the clinical trial because only one of the options involved full pelvic radiation. The other focused only on the cervix. I would be assigned randomly to an option so could not be sure of getting treatment that would attack the nodes no one had seen.

The doctor was frank. It was not possible to determine what was under- or over-treatment. I decided to pursue the most aggressive treatment. So I’ll be having a weekly dose of chemo for six weeks and will simultaneously have five sessions of full pelvic radiation per week for six weeks. It does not sound like I will weather this without considerable suffering, but they are six weeks that improve my chance of making five years and more. She asked if I could take going bald. I told Barb that if my hair was that important I would not have had the same hairstyle for fifty-four years.

Barb agreed that I could handle anything for six weeks. I, of course, pray that this will kill any cancer cells roaming about. I had some blood work done to check for cancer markers in my blood and to establish baselines for the kidney and liver, which are affected by the two chemo drugs I will take.

I feel very good about this course of treatment. I am making a great recovery from surgery. This can be done by about Christmas. I have a week off for Christmas so the last treatment will mean I can take a little break before spring classes gear up.

I guess this counts as a setback. I prefer to think that, by agreeing to pursue this aggressive treatment plan, I have raised the stakes. I am setting my sights on long-term survival. Five years might not be enough living for me. I’m going to give myself the best possible shot at a long life.

Perhaps Susan is right and everyone in my situation has setbacks. What should that mean? Is it any excuse for sidelining me? I don’t think so. Life is filled with setbacks that don’t result in people being “benched for the rest of a season.”

Adversity is a part of life. We should do our best to overcome it rather than knuckle under it. This cancer has come as a surprise to me, but I am strong. I have tried to do things that were difficult before. I cannot say that I have won every battle, but I have done well.

Before I was married in 1981 I had been working three jobs at the same time. I had a job from 11 p.m.-7 a.m. then I taught public speaking from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. Then I went home to sleep. I woke when my sister and fiance’ came by after work. On weekends I traveled with the debate team, sometimes being awake for twenty-four hours straight.

My marriage ended after my first year of law school. Nothing else has ever hurt me as much. It also was a financial hardship to finish law school while my husband and I were separated. He moved out after we had given our landlord notice that we were moving and before we had committed to a new place. He did not want to pay for two homes. I had co-signed school loans for him and suddenly found myself without a co-signer for my school loans. There was a semester when I did not have enough money to enroll. The law school let me attend classes while I scrambled to find funds. I did not have a winter coat one year. My car broke down so many times in tough neighborhoods that I began to live on adrenaline. When my car gave out I waited for buses on dark roads and swore to myself that I would never let a friend go home that way if I could drive her. I finished law school having been first in my class for all three years. I was editor-in-chief of the law review. I won many honors. I also worked two or more part-time jobs for two of the years that I was in law school.

I have watched family members die. Between 1986 and 1996 I lost my Grandpa K, my Grandpa F, my dad, my Grandma F, and then my Grandma K. There were times when my heart ached with such intense pain that I thought I could not handle another setback. The year my dad died I changed jobs, moved from D.C. to Chicago, helped manage a family business while my brother finished his electrician’s apprenticeship, passed the Illinois bar exam, and moved in with my mom. There were so many stress factors to handle that year. I can recall that there always seemed to be a band of tense muscle running across my shoulders that first year after my dad died. But I handled the stress and grief. My family worked together as a team to keep my dad’s business going while my brother finished his apprenticeship. Each of us was under tremendous pressure, but we did not give up.

The year my Grandma K died I spent part of every day of the last couple months of her life with her at her nursing home. I went to work at 3 a.m. so I could leave at about 3 p.m. to drive out to McHenry. Losing her was like losing the only child I’ll ever have. She was so important to my daily life that, when I learned she was dead, I thought life had finally found something that could sever me in two. I still miss our Saturday afternoons we spent together for the four plus years after my dad died and I moved to Chicago. But I survived that loss and made partner that year after having been at a new job for only a year.

In recent years I have worked multiple jobs for multiple universities on multiple campuses. I have had as many as three new “preparations” in a semester. I have also managed to get an article published. There have been days when I was so busy I considered giving up teaching to do something that paid better for less work, but teaching is my passion. I stuck it out.

Lots of people are finding life tough and are not giving up. They accept overtime assignments, take a second job, volunteer, or pitch in to help a family member or friend. Many of them suffer from medical conditions that make them tired or add to other burdens. Isn’t this what life is all about? We survive. We adjust to unexpected demands. We adapt to new conditions. We accommodate the needs of people who depend on us. We stretch to take on new challenges. We don’t quit because life is tough.

That’s the prescription I mean to follow as I face this new challenge. I will survive cancer. I will find a way to adjust to a new schedule of radiation and chemotherapy. I will juggle my various jobs because they pay my bills and feed my soul. I will call on friends for help but still be open to help them. I will stretch the fabric of my life to absorb the new challenges I face. I won’t quit because life is tough.

After Barb dropped me off at my car I sat at the wheel for a few minutes. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I cleared my mind of the buzzing that had consumed me all day. I imagined an existence without stress in it. No family, no friends, no love, no work, no obligations, no fears. If you visualize a thing long enough some people think you can attract it to you. Have I drawn conflict and struggle into my life? Can I dispel them by ignoring them? It’s an interesting idea.

My problem with it is that my life is worth experiencing the conflict and struggle because these challenges have brought rewards, too. If I did not have cancer I probably would miss the lessons in humility and acceptance that I have already been learning. If I did not face financial pressures I probably would miss the opportunities I have had to teach different classes and meet so many different people. If I did not face discrimination I might never explore the nature of my own commitment to the society in which I live. If I did not try my hand at overcoming adversity I might know peace, but I would miss the opportunity to make a difference for others.

You can pick your battles, but a battle you do not fight is a battle lost. Now that the stakes are higher than they have ever been before I have to give my best effort to win. I can do anything for six weeks.

FYI

There are two kinds of people researching their illnesses: those who cannot get enough information and those not wanting to know anything. I cannot decide which group has a better experience. On the one hand, I am curious and have adequate research skills for learning about my cancer. On the other hand, nothing I have learned is very good.

I learned from Dr. D that my cancer was not aggressive, but I was at stage three in its development. I discovered that people at that stage have a 45% chance of being alive in five years. On the night before my follow-up visit at the county hospital I was reading website after website in an effort to prepare myself for my appointment. I was thinking that if I faced my worst fears I would determine that I could handle that scenario. Then I would know that I could manage this challenge. The method has worked for me before.

I have never had to do it with respect to my health until 2011. Now it was my second round of battle with my fears. I understood that this would not be my last night of anxiety. There were too many worst case scenarios with which to grapple. My mind worked to absorb the possibilities like the computer in the movie War Games. There was the possibility that my cancer had spread to my bladder, my bowel, my blood, my brain, my bones–talk about swallowing a B Complex tablet. All of these possibilities scared me. I rubbed my eyes and wondered how many times you could be lucky before you were just due for bad news.

It was not simply the prospect of a recurrence of cancer that occupied me. It was the treatment that made me nervous. I made a list of chemotherapy drugs used to treat endometrial cancer. I began reading their side-effects. It became clear to me that these drugs were designed to scorch the earth and leave it a barren wasteland that would sustain neither cancer nor life. I switched to reading articles about radiation and realized that this was a trip to Chernobyl without the need for a passport.

I stretched out on the couch and drew my favorite quilt over me. I closed my eyes and tried to think positively. I worked on a helpful hypothesis that began with the fact that I was going to face the next stage of recovery with renewed strength and energy. In the days following my surgery I was immeasurably stronger than I had been for some time. I had been walking longer distances. I had not taken even one nap. I felt better. I had lost some weight. I was feeling that I could handle the coming challenges.

Barb called. She wanted to know how I was doing. I admitted that I was afraid and told her about the 45% survivor rate. We were both quiet for a moment.

I felt tears well up in my eyes. It was one thing to die during surgery and another to die of a terrible wasting disease. I have a cousin who fought cancer for eleven years before he succumbed to treatment. It was only a couple of years ago that my naturopath, Kevin, died of cancer. He fought his colon cancer naturally and unsuccessfully. Many of his initial tumors shrank, but he could not recover from the effects of his treatment, which depended in large part on inducing high grade fevers several times a week, coffee enemas, and then juicing to build up his immune system. My friend Roberta lost a sister to an unusual form of cancer. Roberta’s sister Laurie had very little time from diagnosis until death. My Aunt Arlene has been fighting an unusual type of breast cancer for many years. It has spread. Peter S from A&P had colon cancer. He has been gone for some time. My friend Paul recently lost his friend Karen to breast cancer. Not long ago I read that a former colleague from A&P, Susan L died of cancer. I know of people who have not yet succumbed, but the word “yet” lingers in their stories.

Death is a fate that none of us can escape. I remembered my former A&P colleague Tony Friedrich. He survived an airplane crash outside of Madrid in 1984.  Then he died in a plane crash in 1989 in Honduras after monitoring elections in Nicaragua. At the time of his death I was deeply troubled by the thought that you could experience two plane crashes in one young life. That night I contemplated a future in which I, too, might have to face the same horrific fate repeatedly. The worst case scenario approach to handling my fears had become untenable.

Barb suggested that I go to sleep. We would face my fate one day at a time.

I wanted to do this, but it was several more hours before I slept. The truth is that it takes courage to face death once. It takes something I do not yet have words for to face death again and again. You have to ask yourself how anyone who has been to war can send soldiers back to the front time and time again. The plight of these soldiers made me realize that everyone encounters death repeatedly during life. Most of us do not recognize it. We sail through a red light or right a car that has begun to skid on wet or icy pavement. We encounter a sick person and are exposed to a deadly illness. We consume a food that contains nearly enough toxins to cause an illness. We sleep in a bed within feet of a deadly spider. We fly during bad weather. Somewhere in our bodies a cell divides and becomes a cancer cell.

The thing that makes the soldier noble is that he or she faces death for others. The rest of us are just humans. We face our worst fears because our eyes open to recognize the danger. We have no choice except to try to deal with what we see. It is possible that our battles will become noble. But we are not necessarily ennobled by facing fears.

I pulled my quilt up around my ears and wondered how I would be feeling if I had not gone searching for answers to my questions on the Internet. Would I be sleeping soundly? Was ignorance bliss? Already it was too late to say for sure.

What I know about myself is that when I read a book I read it one page at a time. I have rarely skipped ahead to the ending. So I will likely be one of those people who cannot get enough information, but I will stop imagining the worst case scenario because, while I may have to handle it, I am not certain how to handle it. I will take this one day at a time. I will endure what I cannot handle. I will suffer what I cannot endure. I cannot escape the fact that I am going to succumb to something sometime. I am only human. Because I am human I will also have hope to sustain me. I will remain positive. That way, no matter how the story of my life ends I can make it a drama with comedic overtones instead of a tragedy. I like the sound of that.

Giving Thanks

On October 15th I was on my own with my fears. Barb had flown east to North Carolina because her mom’s health was declining. My mom had urged me to relax at home rather than drive out to her place for the day. She was still having trouble believing that I was recovering so well from my hysterectomy. I had spent several days alone in my home and needed to get out and about.

I went to the local Produce Mart and walked its aisles a couple of times. Walking was not difficult. I could stand up straight. I had the cart for balance, but did not require it to stabilize me. There were people all around me in case I had difficulties, but I had no problems. I bought fresh vegetables and a package of eggs. I had picked up a couple of books on cancer and was going to try eating more cauliflower because it has been associated with cancer survivorship. You can find a plan for just about anything if you look for it. I had picked up several self-help books for people with cancer, people with a mission, and people wanting to use social media to convey their mission to others. It was easier to start with the cauliflower. You picked out a head of it. You broke into bite-sized pieces. You steamed it. You ate it. Voila!

What was my mission? I wanted people to understand that I was not crushed by a medical condition that was common and treatable. I read a number of online materials about uterine cancer, sometimes called endometrial cancer. I understood that it strikes women with weight problems and that I could have done a number of things to try to avoid it. I had not done all of those things well. No one had written that people in my situation were responsible for their own ills, but I have spent the last couple of years working on a law journal article about taxes on junk food. There are articles that make the link. They express the view that overweight people are bad citizens because they choose to overeat and impose the costs of their treatment on a society that is tired of helping them with government health care programs and higher insurance premiums.

The exercise of free will by smoking has proven stigmatizing for many people. We passed many sales and excise tax proposals because smokers were perceived as burdens on our governmental resources. These taxes were enacted to produce revenue that would fund health care programs for the care of smokers. After the taxes’ enactment, these taxes were raised for other purposes. When the government needs revenues it is easier to tax behaviors we as a society have deemed antisocial–like smoking–than to tax the generation of income. There is rarely a dollar-for-dollar application of taxes on cigarettes for  programs to aid smokers.

Moreover, legislatures have found other tools to mitigate costs of caring for smokers. Some tort reforms call for the states to share in the recoveries from litigation by smokers against cigarette companies. States have directly sued cigarette manufacturers and have received settlements. Of course, some of the tobacco crops in this country were grown thanks to federal crop incentives. There is no socially responsible measurement of Gross National Product in this country. A sale is a sale. We may support the grower, criticize the manufacturer, and tax the consumer. We view these targeted exactions as fair because smokers should know better.

Has society decided to treat the overweight citizen as it treats a smoker? The media reports on national obesity as an epidemic. Every week I see a news clip of faceless torsos with bulging waistlines or cellulite-covered behinds. There is, however, no safety in numbers. The nutritionally pure will convince even the overweight people that their size is a disgrace. Smoking used to be a glamorous activity. Tobacco companies sponsored sporting events. Now we see warnings and pictures of blackened lungs on packaging and in public service ads. Smokers are acknowledged to be addicted to their cigarettes. Cigarette manufacturers are accused of manipulating their products to capitalize on their addictive properties. Does this translate to restrictions on the production of the product? Not really.

This nation’s experience with Prohibition has made that route undesirable. Proposals to decriminalize the use of some illegal drugs are acknowledgements of the futility of banning certain behaviors. Once we issue tickets for the activity we will have a whole new source of funding for public services. Already there are states that have legalized certain uses of marijuana. Not surprisingly, we now must determine how to limit access to the drug. Consumption will continue as long as the habit is ingrained through addiction, predisposition, or desire.

Alcohol is regarded as a social vice. We support the growth of many of its ingredients with subsidies. We criticize some of its producers. We tax it like we do cigarettes to discourage its consumption or to pay for its burdens on the public. We issue tickets for certain misuses of it. We jail people whose use of it leads to accidents involving vehicles. But we do not seem resolved to wipe it out like we “seem” committed to wipe out cigarette smoking.

How will we handle obesity? If we tax the junk food and the sodas, how will we handle the fact that one man’s vice is another man’s virtue? We already provide crop support programs for crops associated with the production of junk food. Will we tax creme brulee in a fine dining restaurant when we tax a candy bar at the drug store? How will we define junk food if juices contain as much sugar as do some sodas? Is a candy made almost entirely of sugar worse than one that contains refined flour or nuts? Would it make a difference if we required candy manufacturers to use whole grains in their cookies? What about so-called diet foods? Studies show that artificial sugars can stimulate insulin and adversely affect diabetics. Consumption of diet sodas can encourage some to overeat other foods. Some causes of obesity are healthy foods not eaten in moderation. What if the obese people stay fat on a healthy diet? We could make them exercise. Will we allow, and even encourage, private employers to impose penalties on overweight people through medical insurance premiums or hiring decisions? That is already permissible. We can point to the fact that fat people increase the medical insurance costs of everyone else in the risk pool. Once we make them the focus of other people’s resentment, it will be easier to convert others to the cause.

There are many models for “treating” socially undesirable behavior. The lines between products and behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable are becoming blurry. New studies point to new causes of disease every day. BPA in soup cans’ linings turns up in the consumers’ blood and may be associated with disease. Apple juices sampled this week  contained some measurable level of the metal arsenic. Are consumers of soup and apple juice bad?

As I waited in line to buy my cauliflower, I stared at my carton of eggs and recalled a time when the egg was villified for its effects on cholesterol. I eat eggs and my cholesterol count after eating was last measured at 104. A score of 100 or lower after fasting is optimal. Can I take credit for this accomplishment or will someone attribute it to good genes and still assign blame to me for my current health condition?

The problem with legislating behaviors is that it is a form of tyranny. A free society that dictates all kind of private behavior is not free. If we look hard enough at private behavior it always becomes a public burden. Should we tax consumers while we provide crop support to farmers? Should we require everyone in an automobile to wear a seatbelt while we argue about whether people who drive while intoxicated should have to install breathalyzers in their cars? Will we tax cheap junk food and not the lavish desserts served in fine dining restaurants? Will we someday make fat people eat twenty feet from the doors of office buildings so that we won’t be tempted to join them in their consumption of burgers and fries?

I got back in my car and drove to the cemetery where my dad and two of my grandparents are buried. It was windy. Leaves fluttered down from a nearby tree and scattered across the ground. I kicked goose poop off of the headstones. I thanked all of my deceased family members for their prayers on my behalf during my hospitalization. I pondered the place where my grandfather is buried. Some day I plan to join him there. I’m thinking of being cremated so he won’t need to have his own grave lowered. My ashes can be interred in the six feet of ground that covers him.

The truth is that all of us will die of something. Some of us will die before we ever become a burden on society. Some of us will pay enough in taxes to pay our own way through life and into death. Some of us will live without vice but will be a “burden” to society because of our use of crop subsidies, public schools that educate our larger than “normal” families, publicly funded hospitals, and other governmental services.

It is reasonable to tie some taxes to the negative effects of certain activities. It is also reasonable for society to recognize that interdependence means shared responsibility. I pay taxes to educate the children of others even though I am childless. They may have to pay some taxes to help me address my cancer even if I am not blameless in contracting it. I will drive at night even though I know that some others will drive while under the influence of alcohol. I will walk the gauntlet of smokers to enter a public building even though their smoke can affect my health. I am grateful for the right to live something approximating a free life. I will continue to extend to others the tolerance I wish they would extend to me. I will try not to be a hypocrite. My behaviors have consequences that affect others. I will try not to take others with me when my behaviors are self-destructive. I will be grateful when others extend me the same courtesy.

I started the day pondering my cancer, mission, and use of social media to advance that mission. I ended it with a plate of steamed cauliflower and broccoli, a microwaved egg, some brown rice, and a splash of low sodium soy sauce. It turned out to be a pretty good day. Thanks for listening.

Excuse Me for Living

I wrote a letter to the dean of the law school where I used to teach because I could not accept the decision to terminate my teaching. I wanted to work. I needed to work. Work is part of my identity. I teach. It is not for the money. The pay for adjunct teaching is terrible. I have to teach six or seven classes a semester to make a modest living. I teach because it is my passion. My eighth grade class photo in my yearbook says “teacher” beneath it. I knew back then that I wanted to teach. I may occasionally grouse about something that has happened in one of my classes, but I would not trade teaching for anything else.

I got in the car and drove two and a half hours because that would be my longest drive to school during the week. There was no pain. I went to the Dominick’s and walked every aisle because I wanted to be sure I could walk from my car to class and back again. There was no weakness.

I came home and sat on the couch and realized that I would not be teaching my 10 a.m. class the next morning. I cried. Was I supposed to accept a colleague’s judgment that I was no longer reliable because I was diagnosed with cancer? Who was Susan to make this judgment? Had she ever had a colleague with cancer who let her down or was her prior experience with people she did not supervise? I cannot recall a sick peer during my five years at DePaul. I called a friend who worked with her at another university. He could not recall anyone in my situation.

I decided to write to the dean of the law school. He is new. We have not ever met. But I have two concerns: 1) will the law school pay me the remaining $3000+ of my contract and 2) will he have any comment on this decision to terminate my teaching responsibilities.

Dear Dean Mark:

I am writing to request that you confirm that the law school will not breach its obligation to pay me for the remainder of my adjunct professor contract. As set forth below, I was terminated yesterday for having been diagnosed and treated for cancer.

Until October 11, 2011, I was an adjunct LARC professor at DePaul who has taught various writing courses for the law school since Fall 2006. For Fall 2011, I taught one section of LARC III that met Fridays at 10 a.m. On Monday, October 3, 2011, I went to see my physician for evaluation for an emergent health issue. I was taken immediately to the emergency room and then was admitted at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. The next morning I was diagnosed with uterine cancer and told that I required laparoscopic surgery that week. I immediately contacted Professor Martha Pagliari, my direct supervisor. At the time, it was thought that I would have surgery almost immediately and be released by the end of the week. My doctor stated even then that I would be able to work the following week. Professor Pagliari and I arranged for her to meet my students for individual conferences already arranged for October 6-7, 2011.

Following surgery on Friday, October 7, 2011, the hospital released me Sunday, October 9, 2011. I have no restrictions that would prevent me from working. Indeed, my doctor believes that work would be good for me. I called Professor Pagliari the morning of Monday, October 10, 2011, to inform her that I was prepared to teach my class this week. She insisted that I stay home this week and said we would discuss my returning the following week.

Yesterday, I received the attached email from Professor Susan Thrower, the Director of LARC. As it indicates, she made the decision to terminate my contract and employment because of my health even before my treatment. She explained that, based on her experience with others, I might not meet my obligations in the future.

The email does not state whether I will be paid the remaining amount of my $5000 contract for teaching LARC III. I assume that DePaul intends to pay me as that would be consistent with the expressed concern for my well-being, our contract, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. However, I understand that Professor Thrower generally does not communicate with me about compensation and contract terms. Your office does.

I ask that the law school confirm in writing that I will be paid for the remainder of the semester even though a decision has been made by the law school to terminate my contract and employment because of my health. I also have grades to submit for assignments my students have completed. Please let me know to whom to submit them—Professor Thrower, Professor Pagliari or Dean White.

I look forward to your response and, at some future date, the opportunity to return to teaching, and to meet you.

The dean decided not to respond to me directly. Instead, Susan answered.

Dear Cheryl,

I hope that this email finds you in continuously improving health and spirits.

Dean Mark let me know that you contacted him with concerns about receiving the balance of your Fall 2011 LARC III contract pay. Rest assured that you will receive the remainder of your contractual stipend. Should you have future concerns or questions about correspondence from or decisions by me, I hope you know that you can always come to me first to seek clarification.

With respect to your inquiry to Dean Mark about your students’ grades, please send them to Martha by November 1, 2011; she will ensure that your students’ new instructors get them.

Thank you for your work and your diligence this semester. You have my best wishes for your health and productivity.

Susan

I am not feeling better. If anything this is worse. In practice, had my client received a letter like the one I sent, then I would have hoped the matter would be referred to Human Resources. I would have hoped that Human Resources contacted me for advice. I would not have asked the person perceived as having discriminated to remain the primary contact of the person who complained.

It is insulting to me to have to respond to someone who hopes I will return to the fullness of living–as if I am half dead now. It is insulting to me to have there be no comment from the dean on whether or not I am terminated.

I am aware of two jobs that I could now apply for, but I cannot because I have to list myself as having been terminated in the middle of a semester by a law school. I have called two friends in the recruitment industry who have read the original letter from Susan. Both believe I now have to explain this situation to potential employers. That means having to address my health situation.

Look at how well that went over at DePaul. I will not get hired by anyone who shares Susan’s views of the reliability of cancer survivors.

I called my friends, most of whom are lawyers. They were shocked by the decision to reassign my students on the day of my surgery. I have confirmed with a former student that she learned of her reassignment on Friday, October 7th while I was still in surgery. It is every bit as bad as it sounds.

I looked again at the biographies of Susan, Martha and the “Dean of Faculty.” All three are attorneys. Two of these attorneys have practiced in the area of employment law. One founded and supervises a clinic to assist the disabled protect their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. How could these people decide to terminate my teaching this way? I would have defended the rights of a stranger who received such a letter.

Getting paid the rest of my contract stipend alleviates a financial concern. It does not address my disappointment in the institution that regards me as less than fully alive, less than fully reliable, and less than fully human. I am deeply hurt by this judgment of my skill, my character, and my professionalism. I cannot apologize for wanting to work for the pay. Excuse me for living.

Eating Rocks for Breakfast

On October 11th Mom drove me downtown for my post-surgery follow-up appointment. It turned out that the appointment was meant to take place a week later. Nevertheless, I met with Dr. D and Dr. G. They decided to take out my staples a week early because I was healing so well.

The good news came with bad news, too. The pathology report had come in. The uterine tumor had invaded more than 50% of the depth of the uterine muscle. This was a complication not readily apparent from direct observation of the uterus at the time of my hysterectomy. The cancer also had involved the right fallopian tube and had spread close to the cervix. Dr. D described the cancer as grade one and stage three. He advised me to undergo radiation and chemotherapy as a precaution to reduce the risk cancer might have spread.

This was unexpected news and I could not help but think of Susan’s prediction that I would suffer setbacks because all people in my situation do.

It takes a tough mind to resist replaying a recorded message you do not like. I banished the thought because it was negative.

The doctors stared at me. I was calm. Shouldn’t I try to be, I wondered.

My records were to be transferred to Stroger Hospital because I didn’t have medical insurance to cover this additional care. I walked out feeling that it would be good to go home. By home I meant my place. I had not had access to my computer for more than a week. I needed to do some reading on the subject of cancer. I needed to understand my enemy. Because we will do battle. I am not immortal, but I am tough.

I am reminded of a former client who used to bring me strange legal issues to resolve. She bought the condo from hell. Then she wanted to return a dining room suite that was not returnable. When she asked me to help her overcome the store’s no return policy she admitted that her brother thought it was a lost cause. He had said to her, “How can you ask this woman for help again? She helped you with your condo problems and did not send you a bill. She worked hours and hours on it for no money. Now you would ask her for another favor.”

The former client answered, “Cheryl eats rocks for breakfast. She’ll like the challenge.”

I don’t eat rocks for breakfast. I eat oatmeal.

But I will accept a challenge and do my best to overcome it.

My mom dropped me off at my place. It felt good to be home even if the place showed the effects of my recent illness. I took out the trash by dragging it because I had received orders not to lift more than ten pounds. I took a shower, my first since surgery. I sat at my desk for hours answering emails and catching up with my online class. I felt good. I was anemic for some time prior to surgery. I probably had cancer for ten years. I was filled with the blood of people who donate blood. I had more energy than I had in a long time. I had every reason to believe that all of the cancer has been removed. I am ready to hold onto my status as a cancer survivor.

Nothing and no one can take this battle from me. I have to do this for myself. Whatever it takes, I have the right stuff for this battle. I am a positive person. I have a great team to support me. I have faith that my doctors got all of the cancer.

If I have to eat rocks for breakfast, then I will eat rocks for breakfast. I hear they taste like . . . chicken.

Call a Friend

I stayed at my mom’s home for the first couple of days after I got out of the hospital. We usually spend a day together every week. During my visits we unravel the mysteries of her computer and its seemingly relentless demands for approval, “Shall we update? Do we want the extra features to some software? Shall we renew a subscription?” The computer is a needy little beast that seems to confound my mom when she most needs access to some message from a friend about an Internet scam directed at the “seniors.” Sometimes she is stymied by the photo of a family member that appears only as a box with a tiny red X in the corner (an annoying Internet variation on the red eyes in some flash photos).

My mom has tasks for all of us when we are at her home. Since my brother Danny moved to Texas (he works there for a couple of weeks, then comes home to be with his wife Lisa until they can be together again in one city), Mom has developed a list of things that he can do for her when he is in town. It does not matter that I could handle some of those tasks for her. They are for Danny and can wait until he is available. No sooner does he walk in the house and give us all big hugs than she is nudging him to come out in the yard or meet her in the garage to resolve some concern. Danny’s wife Lisa is in charge of the mail when Mom is out of town. She is also the closest to Mom in the event of an emergency and can be counted upon to pick up something at the grocery or the pharmacy or to invite Mom over for a shared meal. She makes wonderful appetizers, too.

My sister Kathy has her tasks as well. She keeps Mom supplied with the “real news” in the form of the TV Guide and numerous magazines that she passes on. The magazines then get passed on to some of Mom’s friends. I have been known to take a few minutes to finish a crossword puzzle, too. Kathy also manages the computer, sometimes logging in remotely to resolve a glitch or answer a question. Moreover, Kathy’s husband Jeff adds another dimension to the smooth operation of Mom’s home. He has come to town and has trimmed bushes, helped re-side a cottage, replaced a toilet, all manner of “handy” skills applied. All of us agree that Mom loves Jeff best.

Now Mom wants to take care of me, and I am difficult to care for.

It is not always easy to be “mothered” when you are in your fifties. My mom and I have laughed together over stories about family squabbles in the local newspaper’s “Police Blotter.” As an example, the police have responded to a call about domestic turmoil that resulted from a son’s dislike of what his mother made for dinner. We wondered, had it never occurred to him to leave the house and go buy something he liked better?

Our difficulties started with the battle to get me to sleep in her bed after I was released from the hospital. I say “battle,” but that is an overstatement. Mom is not a kvetch. She is a nudge. She just keeps pushing with the relentless pressure of a military campaigner. She has so far been unsuccessful in her efforts to coax me into sleeping in her bed. There are three more beds upstairs, and I have refused to sleep in them either. I don’t like sleeping in bed. I am a side sleeper. I like the arm of the sofa as a support for my head. I hate the tangle of sheets and blankets. It’s cold upstairs in the winter and hot upstairs in the summer. I have encountered spiders upstairs. I hate spiders.

I bought one of the beds upstairs when I lived there after my dad died. If I liked beds I would sleep in it. I prefer the couch. I don’t sleep much. Sometimes I sleep as little as three hours a night for months in a row. While I was in the hospital I probably “slept” about five hours over six nights. I do not require much sleep. The couch offers TV and good lighting for reading. It supports my back if I sit up to use my computer. I prefer to sleep on the couch.

After Kathy left Chicago to return home to her family, Mom tried to nudge me into a bed by raising the subject every few minutes for an entire evening. We were watching the results from Dancing With The Stars, a show both of us watch. I tried to get her to focus on the show, but she was focused on getting me to lie in her bed. She would go upstairs to sleep.

The woman is a force of nature in the great tradition of fire and flood. She talks during TV shows, even shows she enjoys. When I say talks I mean she talks almost nonstop. Then she is silent during commercials. I cannot tell you how she does it. I can only tell you that I have been known to become so involved in a TV show that I watch with my mouth hanging open a bit. Like a fish caught by bait it could not resist, the TV will draw me in. Only one thing can break my concentration–my mom.

As she did her best to bend me to her will that first night we were alone after my surgery, I pushed back politely until I could stand it no longer. I picked up the phone and dialed Barb.

“What are you doing?” Mom asked me.

“I’m using one of my lifelines,” I responded.

“What?”

“I’m dialing a friend.”

Barb answered my call. “Hello?”

“Please remind me why it’s a bad idea to kill my mom,” I said.

Barb laughed.

My mom threw up her hands and went to bed.

When she next met with resistance, my mom reached out and patted my head. “I don’t know how to take care of you any longer.”

You do, Mom. You have surrounded me with love. That’s the only medicine I need.

Last week she gave me a prayer card. She arranged for me to be remembered in the prayers of a religious order. I suspect she wrote to the order to ask if they could pray not only for my health but also that I spend the night in a bed. All of us have “friends” we call at our moment of greatest need. All of us are grateful when our calls for help are answered. My mom has dialed a friend who, if He answers her call, will no doubt have me tucked in a bed before I know it.

That’s the magic of a good friend, isn’t it? No matter is too large. No matter is too small. A good friend answers your call and does whatever he or she can to help. Just thinking about this is making me sleepy.

Bad Day at the Office

On October 10th I called my three bosses to let them know I was out of the hospital and able to return to work. My online class had continued uninterrupted. I had posted the prior week’s lesson before I saw my doctor and before I was hospitalized. I posted a new lesson after my release. My two classes for another school were cancelled and needed to be made up. The director of the program was happy to hear I was able to work. At DePaul College of Law my supervisor (Martha) had covered my class conferences for the week. She would not hear of my returning on Friday, October 14th. She said that having a hysterectomy was like having a baby and no one can return to work within a week of having a baby. It would have been an hour and forty-five minutes lecture. She insisted I take the week off.

The comment was insensitive. A woman with a baby carries the baby for nine months, she delivers the baby, and she takes it home. And a woman with a baby does not get much rest. A woman with a hysterectomy cannot have a baby. She comes home alone and gets rest.

I recently opened a Twitter account and joined Hyster Sisters, an Internet group for women who have had hysterectomies. They would not take kindly any comparison of new moms and hyster sisters. In fact, members are discouraged from having screen names that mention motherhood as some of the sisters cannot have children and wish they could.

I started reading through emails received during my hospitalization and read one from a law student who mentioned her disappointment that I would not be returning to teach. It never occurred to me that the law school would terminate me during a one week absence for which my class was covered. I had been teaching there since 2006. I thought the student might have been confused.

The next day I received the following email from the head of the legal writing (the LARC) department.

Dear Cheryl,

I was so alarmed to hear from Martha that you had to have surgery last week, but so pleased to hear from her that you are already on the road to convalescence! Please take care of yourself and don’t overdo it in an effort to achieve normalcy too quickly. You have been through a lot—both physically and emotionally—and you can’t expect to bounce back with no set-backs.

I understand that you are eager to return to your class this semester, and I know that your students would be delighted to finish out the semester with you; many of them have expressed concern about your health and enthusiastic appreciation for your instruction. I need to let you know, though, that after fully consulting with the Dean of Faculty, I felt compelled to make the decision to reassign your students to other LARC III sections. I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue. My first responsibility is to the students’ learning and the smooth functioning of the LARC department, so I made the decision that increases the chances of maximizing both. I am sorry if my decision disappoints you, and I hope that you are able to understand the situation from my perspective.

We have every hope and expectation that you will be fully healed and able to teach in the Spring semester, and we will welcome you back in January with pleasure. If we can do anything for you in between now and then, please let me or Martha know. You have my every wish for your quick return to health and the fullness of life.

Susan

It was a bad day at the office.

Even as I write about it a month after it happened I am shuddering. It is so painful to be the object of discrimination for a diagnosis. The students were informed that I was not returning and that they were reassigned to other professors’ classes on the day I underwent surgery. At that time they knew my doctor had said that I would be able to return to work the next week. There was no prognosis that indicated my unavailability for work.

I resent the assumption that all cancer survivors suffer setbacks that prevent them from working. My doctor told me that work would be good for me. It was not my supervisors’ place to decide for me that I could not fulfill my responsibilities. Indeed, when I told my doctor what happened he said, “They can’t do that, can they?” When I shared the email with one friend he said that his law school would not use that letter in a problem because it made it too easy to spot the legal issue.

I have been working since my surgery. Had I continued my law school class I would have completed it in another week or two. Moreover, I was managing my schedule quite well when I had undetected cancer and was bleeding to the point of needing eight packs of blood. When one of my doctors asked the head of internal medicine whether I should take a stress test before surgery the doctor responded that my life must have been a stress test for some time and I had passed the test.

What shocks me most is that three members of the faculty signed off on my termination and, according to their bios on the law school’s website, two of them have backgrounds in handling cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other discrimination laws.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website (eeoc.gov) describes the Americans with Disabilities Act as follows:

“Disability Discrimination & Work Situations

The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”

It discusses cancer as follows:

“Approximately 40 percent of the more than one million Americans diagnosed with some form of cancer each year are working-age adults, and nearly 10 million Americans have a history of cancer.

“Despite significant gains in cancer survival rates and the passage of the ADA, people with cancer still experience barriers to equal job opportunities.  One reason individuals with cancer face discrimination at work is their supervisors’ and co-workers’ misperceptions about their ability to work during and after cancer treatment.  Even when the prognosis is excellent, some employers expect that a person diagnosed with cancer will have long absences from work or not be able to focus on duties. Today, however, unlike one hundred years ago when cancer was a literal ‘death sentence,’ most working-age cancer survivors return to work and have relatively the same productivity rates as other workers.” (Citations omitted).

The website goes on to explain:  “[C]ancer is a disability when it does not significantly affect a person’s major life activities, but the employer treats the individual as if it does.” it also states: “If the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee may be unable to perform her job or may pose a direct threat to herself or others, the employer may ask for medical information.  However, the employer may obtain only the information needed to make an assessment of the employee’s present ability to perform her job and to do so safely.” (Emphasis in original.)

The law seems clear. An employee with cancer who is perceived as being disabled is protected whether or not she is in fact disabled. An employer who fears a disabled employee may be incapable of working may request a doctor’s statement as to the employee’s capacity to work. It is impermissible to discriminate in the making of assignments or termination of a disabled employee based on the perceived (or real disability) if the person can perform the job or can do so with reasonable accommodation by the employer.

The legal issues I can handle. What is painful to me is that people with whom I have worked since 2006 made the decision to “sideline” me without picking up the phone to speak with me. They did not pay attention to what I told them. They expected me to fail. They underestimated my commitment, my stamina, my professionalism, and my will to succeed. I would expect at least one of them to have objected to this treatment for a stranger who walked into the clinic he founded and supervised.

I teach as many as seven classes a semester on as many as three campuses for three different schools. I am organized and competent. And I love what I do. I receive low pay and don’t care. Who I am is tied up in what I do. It is not a hobby. I put in extra hours every year to meet with students and former students to counsel them in their career development. It is time spent willingly.

I took the diagnosis of cancer as a challenge. I took the news of my termination much harder. Much harder. I have shed more tears over this action taken against me than my diagnosis. Until I received that email cancer was a medical condition. It became something that undermined who I am and what I stand for.

October 11th was a bad day at the office.

Contents May Have Shifted

On the morning of Sunday, October 9th, one of my surgeons came to see me. She examined my incision and found things in order. She planned to run at least part of the Chicago Marathon that morning with her husband. Then she would take a nap before returning to work. She did not authorize my release before she left.

My brother had returned to Dallas. My sister Kathy and mom would come to pick me up–once I was ready to leave. My sister did not know Chicago well, but she had a GPS. My mom knew the city but disliked city driving. They were eager to pick me up ASAP while it was light outside

No one wanted me to go home alone to my apartment in the city. I had to return with them to my mom’s home. I was not happy about this, but I relented. When Dr. G awoke from her nap, she called in and gave me the “green light” for departing.

Mom was delighted to learn that we could get a parking voucher to offset the cost of parking while my sister came upstairs to collect me. The idea of paying to visit a sick relative stuck in her craw and gave the rest of us an excuse to tease her. My mom waited in the hospital lobby. Her gout had flared up and had made it painful for her to come up to my room.

I had the doctor’s permission to drive and to return to work. I was told my staples would be removed in three more days. I received some prescriptions. We piled into Mom’s car with Kathy at the wheel. The GPS chose our route. It featured streets with immense, deep potholes.

As we bounced our way south and then west for a trip to the north I tried to take control, but that infuriating voice of the GPS kept drowning out my suggestions. Does anyone like these bossy contraptions? Why is it illegal to speak on a phone or text while driving, but not to look at the device’s screen to judge your next move?

I gripped the handle overhead and lifted my behind off of the seat as we cruised up and down the road. Each jolt rippled through my body like the animation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Something was not where it belonged. I thought it was my bladder, which had been functioning well since my surgery. The pain was much worse than anything I had encountered in the hospital. I was barely suppressing tears. I kept thinking of the notice that used to be on every box of cereal and bag of chips I ever bought: Contents may have shifted during transit. My bladder appeared to be balancing on something dagger-sharp. It had never done so before. I imagined it had moved now that other organs were gone.

We were about to merge onto the highway when we saw a traffic jam stretching for miles north. I felt panic much greater than when I reacted to my diagnosis. Ten minutes later I was in so much pain that I begged my sister to exit the highway and head for a McDonald’s. My bladder had been operating, but it seemed the center of my central nervous system as we hit every bump in the road. The GPS was unhappy–it was “recalculating” with a miffed tone.

Kathy pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot. You may think the menu is too full of fat and calories, but the bathrooms are always clean. I stumbled from the car with my body doubled over and headed for the ladies’ room. Moments later I was a new woman! My bladder had tipped off of the fulcrum on which it had teetered. I never felt any serious pain again.

We reached Mom’s home without any further tears. Of course, once we were there, we were battling over where I would sleep. I have never slept more than a few hours a night on a regular basis. I have tried natural remedies, exercise, over-the-counter sleeping aids, hypnosis, even an occasional dose of Nyquil. I do not like to sleep in my bed. The last time I slept in my own bed was 2008. It was a bad night.

I wanted to sleep on Mom’s couch. She wanted me to sleep in her bed. She would sleep on a couch. She had the gout and needed her sleep as much or more than I did. The bed had no headboard, no handrails, and it was high off of the ground. I would end up lying on my back like a June bug. I prevailed, and the night was difficult. I wanted my couch, my quilt, my pillows, and my nightie. I managed a short nap while I wore the same clothes I had worn the day I checked in at the hospital. It was my first sleep since surgery.

I asked myself, why are you incapable of sleeping? I had my reasons. I kept thinking about the priest’s administration of the last rites, that child’s prayer about dying before I wake, the short life line on my right palm, those darn Cancer Center of America commercials in which Peggy discusses the fact that she had no expiration date, the due dates upon my forthcoming hospital and other medical bills, and my small bank balance. Sleep was fraught with unresolved issues.

How many have likened sleep to death? I now find myself unwilling to surrender any portion of my day to troubled dreams or dreamless sleep or death’s long sleep. Less than a week ago I was insisting my family respect my having signed a Do Not Resuscitate order. Now I am fighting for my life.

I think about my Grandma K. When she suffered a stroke, we called the priest to perform the sacrament for the sick. When the priest finished his talk with her, he annointed her with holy oil and pronounced her ready to pass.

Grandma said, “You mean to say that I am ready to die?”

The priest nodded.

She responded, “Shit!” Then she covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. Foul language was, in her view, a sin. Catholics are taught that even a thing that is not a sin is a sin if we perceive it to be so. By sinning she was no longer “ready.” She was in her nineties. I also recall a client’s unwillingness to complete her estate plan because it would mean she was ready to die. She was in her eighties.

Why do some of us wake up every day wishing that we had died in our sleep while others resist sleep so as to have more life? Who is braver? Who is wiser? Who lives longer?

Ever since I learned that I have cancer the contents of my life have shifted in ways I would not have predicted. Sometimes the box looks a little light, but the gravity of my experience has caused this perception. In fact, my diagnosis has made dense and more meaningful some of my more shallowly developed viewpoints.

For example, I have long been what others call a “bleeding heart liberal.” I have supported funding for things like medical care for the uninsured. When I did not have the funds to pay for health insurance, I supported a national health insurance plan that might lower the price of care. My beliefs reflected my sense of economic justice and my self interest. I’m not sure I was compassionate.

Since my diagnosis I have met many people in more dire health and economic situations than I face. I have been deeply moved by the sight of a man with cancer leading two profoundly disabled children with him through his treatment. He has no babysitter to help him. I have seen children leading a mother or grandmother through the county hospital because their relative was too frail to manage her own care. They are their parents’ caregivers when young enough to still need someone else’s guidance. A tattooed man in biker garb suffering a relapse of his brain cancer has insisted that I precede him for care in a first-come, first-served setting because ladies go first. A breast cancer survivor has begged me to get her some help when pain has overwhelmed her. I have given my seat in a crowded waiting room to someone’s grandmother who probably rode a couple of buses to show up for chemotherapy. I have seen young men sit among  many older persons so that they can take their turns absorbing poisons that kill healthy and cancer cells. These are people who love life no matter how difficult it has become.

Suffering, poverty, and human dignity have faces that are becoming more and more familiar to me. In the past I have often given money to a homeless person on the street rather than to a charity because I respond to the individual homeless persons as people. But now I see the role of institutions, like my county’s hospital, in the care of the sick, and I don’t think I will ever be able to turn down a call for help from any of the institutions, foundations, and charities that serve cancer survivors and their families. Whether or not I have money to spare, I have time they have helped to make for me. I should give some of it back so as to help others.

I think the scale shows that the new configuration of my character is less and yet so much more than when it started. It is less remote, less self-serving, less insensitive. It is more compassionate, more appreciative, more committed. The trip I am on is making a difference.

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