Cancer, besides being an all-around bummer, has a way of putting a damper on your life. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 after turning 30 and moving to Los Angeles for a promotion at my job. Frankly, I didn’t have time for cancer, but cancer isn’t really concerned with how busy you are.
From my initial diagnosis to chemo and beyond, I had to quickly figure out how to find a balance between what I needed to do for my livelihood and what I needed to do for my mental health and wellness. My experience won’t be yours entirely, of course, but I can offer you some advice based on my journey to help you with yours.
The moment everything changes
It all started with a pain in my groin and a bruise on my testicle. I found a doctor who revealed within a week that my blood had elevated hCG levels, a hormone that’s an indicator of tumor growth in men. A urologist informed me that the testicle had to be removed for a biopsy. So within the short span of a month, and only a few short weeks after moving to Los Angeles, I was told that yes, the biopsy showed a tumor and that I would need multiple rounds of chemotherapy to prevent any additional tumors from popping up.
With this new massive challenge ahead of me, I quickly realized I wasn’t rolling in money or in possession of a lot of free time. I knew that chemo would be intense; at times it would be five days a week, six hours a day. A chemotherapy counselor, a nurse designated to help me understand what the experience would be like, told me the process would be difficult, and that some people find working during chemo to be stressful.
More stressful than cancer?! Could I work during that? No, obviously not, but like I said, I needed money.
“You do what you need to do,” my boss said, to my delight, until moments later when he added, “But you know, my friend had cancer and she worked during chemo.” This gentle nudge toward working wasn’t what I needed at the time. I felt the pressure to keep working from my bosses and my wallet, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to.
1. Remember: You don’t have to face this on your own
For starters, establish for yourself what kind of support you need and what support systems you currently have. Cancer can be a lot to handle on your own, especially if you want to continue working. When someone is going through something as personal as chemo, sometimes all they want is to be heard and respected for how they feel.
I’ve noticed there’s a tendency among people without cancer to help the person in chemo, ask how they are, do things for them, and treat them delicately. I’m sure some people respond to that, but be sure to let people know if that’s too much for you, be they friends or co-workers.
2. Make the right choices for yourself
Every person about to undergo chemo must decide whether to continue working, go on short-term disability, or go on long-term disability. Unfortunately, this area of the cancer experience is vague, because everybody’s situation is different. Legal rights vary by state, but if you’ve paid your taxes then you’re more than likely to qualify for state short-term disability.
Some companies offer long-term disability, which is a good option, but many opt to hold off on that until they have used up the short-term disability they are allotted. If, however, you aren’t employed and haven’t paid into the system, then your options are usually Medicaid and Social Security.
I know what you’re thinking: It’s one big ball of confusion and how is somebody facing a traumatic life experience supposed to make a decision? Great question, but I can’t answer that for you. What I can tell you is the best solution is to take the time to get all of your options laid out for you and seek counseling from your doctors. This is one of the most important decisions you have to make through your journey with cancer.
3. Consider talking to a therapist before returning to work
As I approached my last round of chemo, I knew I was going to have to go back to work fairly quickly, but I craved some peace of mind, some quiet from the noise of doctors, patients, and well-wishers. Unfortunately, the $500 a month from short-term disability payments wasn’t going very far, and the pressure was on to get back to work.
It’s impossible to know when you’re ready to jump back into your job until your body and mind feel ready. My post-chemo reality was full of emotions, both good and bad, and I didn’t know how to process them. If anything, I should have listened to my inner voice telling me to slow down. But like for many people, real world realities took over.
Just two weeks after my last round of chemo, I went back to work. My first day consisted of a few emails and hours of tears. I didn’t want to be there, I felt overwhelmed, and I didn’t know how to process my surroundings. Even the lighting seemed overwhelming. This place was both familiar and strangely foreign. After what I had just gone through, nothing felt normal. I could never again be cancer-less H. Alan Scott. The tears eventually subsided, but the weight was never lifted from my shoulders.
If I could have changed anything, I would have been in therapy during and after chemo with someone who knew how people process cancer and chemo. I was basically bouncing around aimlessly. I did what I thought was right with little guidance, which is why I immediately went back to work instead of listening to my body and stepping back for a bit longer.
4. Seriously, take all the time you need
After a few months, I started missing days of work, had mild panic attacks, started yelling at people, and was randomly crying. I could feel something was wrong with me at my core, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I finally met with a psychiatrist, something I should have done way earlier. Together with my oncologist it was decided I needed to undergo extensive therapy, and we filled out the necessary paperwork for long-term disability.
For over a year I worked on processing what had happened to me. I took the time to understand the cancer, and the chemo, and the breakdown. I went on antidepressants that helped me control my emotions, and met regularly with my psychiatrist and therapist. I took the time to get well and get to know the new me, post-cancer.
It became clear that a traditional work environment wasn’t in the cards for me. The realities of typical workspaces became triggers for me. Office spaces, emails, all the things that once were byproducts of my work life became reminders of when cancer reared its ugly head. To this day I can only respond to email three days a week.
But as I worked on myself, I started to learn alternative ways to make an income that worked for my new life plan. I took freelance jobs, worked on contract, and worked for companies from home. It’s not easy, and it takes a level of concentration that isn’t for everyone, but it allows me to stay mentally calm while still giving me a much-needed source of income (because cancer debt is my new brand).
I don’t know if I’ve found my perfect balance yet. It’s been four years since I was diagnosed, and two years since I recognized what was needed for my own mental well-being instead of ignoring the signs. I’m still adjusting, still working through the memories of cancer and chemo. But I like who I am now, and like the work I’ve been able to produce. I am grateful for the ability to take care of myself while still making a living. I’m certainly not making as much money as I did when I had an office job, but if finding the balance between work and self-care means making less money, then I choose self-care.
H. Alan Scott is a writer/comedian based in Los Angeles. His work has been featured on MTV, VICE, Esquire, Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Daily Dot, Nerdist, and Fusion. He's appeared on CNN, MTV, Fusion, and "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He's consulted on Fusion's "No, You Shut Up" and TV Land's "Younger." H. Alan chronicled his cancer diagnosis with #Chemocation, currently being made into a memoir.