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Secrets from the
Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors
An excerpt from the book by Barbara Delinsky

Chapter 9. The Workplace

Making It User-Friendly

There's nothing like being your own boss. In that sense, I had the best possible scenario when it came to working through breast cancer treatment.

Yes, I work on deadline, but the deadline that I set for myself is usually a month or more before the one that my publisher sets for me. This means I have leeway should something crop up. It sure took the pressure off when I was diagnosed.

Another bennie of being your own boss is being able to work at home. I wore sweatsuits. I wore big men's shirts.

I sat with a heating pad between the chair and my back (no one told me my back would hurt when my chest wall was pushed out to make room for new breasts -- but that does get better, ladies), and no one looked at me askance. I didn't have to apologize or explain when I took off for a couple of hours to have radiation or to take a nap.

Not everyone has this luxury. Occupation-wise, members of the UPLIFT sisterhood run the gamut from bus driver to musician to banker. We have dentists and dental assistants, lawyers and legal assistants, microbiologists, psychotherapists, and midwives.

We have a lieutenant governor. We have a broadcast journalist. We have architects, sales clerks, and telephone operators. We have a symphony musician.

If I were to single out the occupation with the heaviest concentration of submitters, it would be teachers -- but then, we do expect that teachers like to write. There are also a striking number of nurses in the group.

Of course, they were in a prime position to learn about this project and care about passing on their advice. Lord knows, they've seen the downside of women who are in the dark.

And there were moms and wives galore -- far more than are listed in the credits -- and I'm sorry for that. When people were asked about their occupation, they often listed their outside-the-home job, when the content of their submissions clearly suggests that they juggle inside-the-home jobs as well.

Inside or outside, an amazing number of women said that they worked right through treatment. I can identify with these women. For me, work was an escape. It enabled me to minimize the impact of having breast cancer, and was a reminder that life went on.

Not every woman works right through, and remarks from these women are included here, too. They'll tell you about the flexibility of their bosses and about how taking time off worked for them.

Worked for them. That's the key, here. What works for one woman may not work for another. What works in one job may not work in another.

The thing is, you need to take a step back, think about yourself and your situation, then speak up about what may work for you. In every situation, you have choices, and the choices are all good. What pleases one woman may not please another.

Which is why they have menus in restaurants, as my dad used to say.

A Workplace Manual

"Here are the strategies that helped me maintain that crucial balance between cancer and work:

  1. I scheduled doctors' appointments early in the day or at the beginning of their 'seeing patients' time block. This way I was in and out of the office nice and fast. Doctors' schedules seem to back up as the day wears on.
  2. Since radiation treatments are scheduled daily at the same time for six weeks, I begged and groveled to get a time slot near the end of the business day.
  3. I planned my surgeries (especially elective reconstruction procedures) for Fridays, vacation, or slow times for business. Weekends are great times to recuperate and get back on your feet without losing precious work time or sick days.
  4. I got an understudy and trained her. When I knew that I would not be feeling my best, (i.e., the first three days after a chemo infusion), I scheduled the understudy to work side by side with me. That way I had a safety net."

Alysa Cummings; diagnosed in 1998 at age 45;
educational trainer; New Jersey

"My young third graders cherished me and took care of me. They wouldn't let me lift or carry anything because they knew I wasn't supposed to be using my arm at that time."

Sue Watson; diagnosed in 1996 at age 53;
teacher; Texas

"While I was having treatments, I worked every day, but I finally realized that it was okay to take naps. Once I figured this out, it helped me get through a hard week a little better. My body let me know what it needed."

Michele Marks; diagnosed in 1996 at age 33;
CAD operator; Ohio

"My boss got me a laptop so that I could work from home on the days I didn't feel well."

Asha Mevlana; diagnosed in 1999 at age 24;
musician; New York

"My boss at the time was my brother. He suggested I go for radiation treatment in the morning, work a few hours, then go home and rest in the afternoons. That is what I did, because even though I looked great, I was unbelievably tired.

When illness comes, we need to listen to our bodies and give them the time to rest and recover. I hadn't anticipated it, but those afternoon hours became a truly peaceful, nurturing time to read and rest and enjoy quiet time."

Deb Haney; diagnosed in 1996 at age 48;
administrative assistant, artist; Massachusetts

"I work at a regional high school with over twelve hundred students. During chemo, I was concerned about being exposed to so many people and possibly getting sick.

The school district was great. They purchased a telephone headset for me to use, so that I wouldn't be exposed to unnecessary germs."

Linda Jones Burns; diagnosed in 2000 at age 40;
high school registrar; New Hampshire

"In the workplace, it was helpful that people stayed away from me when they had colds. The owner of the company told me to work only when I was up to it, and my bosses were patient with my distraction and my distracting others.

There were lots of questions and curiosity, and I answered them all. I wanted to educate everybody along with myself. Work was my salvation. My fellow employees were supportive and continue to be so in my efforts to raise funds for cancer research.

On the flip side, I've become the company support person on breast health. I even had my surgeon come and give a talk."

Deborah J.P. Schur; diagnosed in 1994 at age 43;
sales rep; Massachusetts

"It was very important to me to show people that I was alive and well. I rested between patients at the office, scheduled lightly, and didn't work around the house. I saved my energy for the office.

My husband accompanied me to many functions and meetings at our children's school. We would never stay long, but I wanted to show my face."

A survivor; diagnosed in 1998 at age 45;
dentist; Indiana

"I juggled cancer and work by just giving up some things, like housework. I discovered that the house could go for weeks without being vacuumed or dusted -- and not only did the sky not fall, it didn't even crack!"

Rosamary Amiet; diagnosed in 2000 at age 48;
program manager; Ohio

"If you are a large-breasted woman who has a lumpectomy with radiation, and you're working during treatment, you face a dilemma. You don't want to go without a bra in the workplace, because you feel like a cow!

You can't wear a bra with bones or underwires, because they cause pressure on the radiation area. You need wide straps so that nothing digs into your shoulders, and you need a fabric that doesn't irritate your skin. During radiation, sexy goes out the door, and comfort is the watchword!

The full-figure Bali bra style 3821 fit the bill for me. Go to a shop that has a professional fitter, and try on everything. I'd suggest buying one of the most comfortable and trying it out for a week before buying another one.

The bra can be washed out every night. That way you haven't wasted a fortune on bras, only to find that they don't go the distance."

Sharon Irons Strempski; diagnosed in 1997 at age 52;
registered nurse; Connecticut

'The company I work for was very supportive, giving me time off when needed and consoling me when I felt down. I was on disability for a few months and then returned to work while still getting chemo treatments."

Sandy Mark; diagnosed in 1998 at age 55;
administrative assistant; Connecticut

Author Barbara Delinsky's bestselling novels include Looking for Peyton Place, The Woman Next Door, and Coast Road, which featured a heroine who was a breast cancer survivor. She serves on the Massachusetts General Hospital Women's Cancer Visiting Committee. Readers can write to her c/o P.O. Box 812894, Wellesley, MA 02482-0026, or via the internet

Uplift : Secrets from the Sisterhood of Breast Cancer Survivors

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