Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When Will I Return to Work?

This picture symbolizes the heartbreak that I feel when I think of Cameron and Jordan and their perspective of what having a Mom go through cancer treatment must be like for them. Each and every day when they come home from school they are greeted by our closed bedroom door. This closed door means many things to them. Mom is sleeping again, Mom is too tired to get up and make us dinner. Mom is having a nap. Mom is having a hard time. I lie in bed behind that closed door and have cried many tears as I hear life going on in our household in my absence. Dinners appear from loving friends or get made by Jason, homework gets done, hockey practices have happened and sleepovers have continued.

Almost as soon as I was nearing my last treatment the questions began. Innocent questions from well-meaning friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives. "So now that your treatments are over when are you going back to work?" My career as all of you know has been my passion, my identity and so much apart of me. I would love nothing more than to be able to finish my treatments on September 22 and return to work full of energy and cognitive capacity the very next day on September 23,  ready to go non-stop from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, working through my nutrition breaks, driving my kids to practices, getting home, making dinner and then leaving to go pick the kids up, sitting down to craft letters, IEPs, lesson plans, professional development day presentations, assembly videos. Unfortunately, this is not how recovering from cancer treatment works.

When Jason and I sat down with Dr Stevens on April 17, 2014 to discuss my treatment plans and he learned I was a Special Education Teacher working full time in a school setting, immediately he looked me in the eye and said, "Michelle, you need to treat this exactly like a maternity leave, but without the baby in the end. In the end you will have your life and health." What a shock to hear, a year off work? That can't be true. He explained that typically on average, it takes about one month of recovery time for every month of chemotherapy that your body endures. One month per treatment cycle for your body to process the toxins that continue to circulate throughout my body. Add to that, the fact that Hodgkins Lymphoma is cancer of your immune system and that currently my white blood cell count or my neutrophils which are what fight infections are 0.1. My immune system has been essentially wiped out and I am now starting over. Now this being an average and everyone knowing that I strive to push myself to be better than average, I feel that this timeline has some room. Room for my own feelings, re-building and that statement I have heard time and time again in the cancer world "Everyone responds differently to chemotherapy."

So I have a guideline. A guideline from my doctor and a belief inside of me that my body will guide me in making the decision when I am ready to return to work. Right now, I can't get through one day without sleeping for several hours in the afternoon. Driving Jordan to gymnastics is a task that I don't feel some days I can do safely due to my reduced cognitive functioning (Google the term chemo brain) Walking up the stairs or a simple walk around the block leaves me out of breath. I am at constant great risk of contracting an infection. I don't even know for sure that I won't be also facing radiation therapy in the coming months. Returning to work is actually far from my mind. Learning to live as a cancer survivor and getting through each day feeling stronger and stronger is my main focus right now.

And a true sign of when my body will be ready for the rigors of a full time job and full time mother will be the open door when my kids come home and Mom greeting Cam and Jordan enthusiastically at the door with energy and brightness that right now just isn't there. I realize that returning to work is a symbol that I am healed and well enough to return to the real world. It will come and I can't wait!

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