Competing in Cancerland

Posted on: April 20th, 2017 by

Layout 1

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

— Abraham Lincoln

We who’ve been hit with the cancer bomb are now part of a community we never wanted to be part of in the first place. We should be unified. But we are not always unified. We should find comfort from each other. But often we do not.

Take the breast cancer community, for example. Sometimes rifts occur between each other — for instance, early stagers vs. those with metastatic disease, those who support pink-related celebrations vs. those who do not, and those who have reconstruction vs. those who choose not to, and so on. Life is too short, painfully too short, for us to be divided.


And let’s not forget those people who question others’ treatment protocols. I will never forget how my breast cancer “support group” constantly interrogated me about my supposedly wrong treatment protocol by the wrong doctor and in the wrong hospital.

Truth is, as most of us know, breast cancer is neither black nor white, but a great shade of murky.

It’s not just the breast cancer community that feels conflict within itself. Too many cancer comparisons exist for my liking. The well-known division a few years ago between Pancreatic Cancer Action and the breast cancer community because of the former’s faux pas: Pancreatic Cancer Action put out a sort of videomercial implying breast cancer is better than pancreatic cancer.

Instead of cancer unity, feelings were hurt on both sides of the cancer spectrum. My response at that time can be found here.

But I want to point out a lesser-emphasized conflict: between those who work through cancer treatment and those who do not.

In fact, the next part of this post was conceived way before I even knew what a blog was and while I was in treatment for breast cancer. I was in New York City visiting family a few days after my latest chemotherapy treatment. I used vacation days, as I was still working full-time and juggled a part-time job throughout treatments.

My aunt and I hung out with her very good friend, L., a generally wonderful person who was being treated for ovarian cancer. Over lunch that I could not eat, L. casually said to me, “You know, it’s people like you [who work during treatment] that make it tough for the rest of us who can’t work. Employers see people like you working and believe everyone can work through treatment.”

That judgmental remark knocked the wind out of me.

I immediately felt shame and guilt.

Yes, I was one of the lucky ones, the one who could work during treatment. Nevermind, that this was no easy feat. I chose to work during cancer treatment because I had no choice: my husband and I were precariously close to homelessness and starving if I didn’t keep my employment.

(And as a side note, I did happen to want to work a little just to quench my miserable life with a sense of normalcy, the kind of normalcy a work routine would provide me.)

L. never made that remark again, and we spent lots of fun times over the years. Sadly L. eventually died from ovarian cancer. I’ve never harbored ill feelings toward her for that remark and, to some extent, I understood where it came from.

But I never forgot it.

Yes, I worked during cancer treatment, inadvertently becoming the cancer warrior archetype I never wanted to be. I was unaware of it at the time, but people perceived me as the stoic woman who could do it all — work two jobs, have chemotherapy and radiation simultaneously, and pay the mortgage. And, I hate to admit it, but I started believing that I could do it all.

Stupid pride. Stupid necessity.

I remained highly competent at my jobs, but working took a toll on my health. How could it not?

Working through treatment didn’t do my psyche any favors either.

And I must fess up: during treatment I was also guilty of being judgmental — against those who didn’t work. “It must be nice,” I jealously thought when talking with people who stopped working during treatment. “I wish I had that option.” I used to envy those who were retired or not working and being taken care of by a loved one. I’m ashamed to admit I had such divisive thoughts.


I guess wanting what someone else has is human. So is jealousy. So is pointing fingers.

Maybe the path to understanding each other isn’t as straight as we’d like it to be. It dips and curves. But we can still get to a destination of mutual respect and understanding.

Did you work during treatment? Why or why not?

Have you ever felt judged regarding illness?

Tags: , , , , , ,

10 Responses to Competing in Cancerland

  1. Pati Stein had this to say about that:

    I am working part time through chemo -taxol and hercepton. For me it is necessary to keep my healthcare as I didn’t qualify for FMLA. My employer has been kind and I have time off when I need it, but legally they could release me as I’m unable to work enough to forfil the full time commitment. They value me and are kind. I am in a similar situation in that we need the income. I like my job but if I could get away without working I probably would.

    No one has judged me. But I sometimes feel a bit of survivors guilt that I am well enough to work. The side effects can be so much worse than they have been with me. So I am both lucky and guilty.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Pati,

      I am so glad that your employer is kind. That makes a huge difference. I totally understand working because you need the income. It’s the plight of many undergoing cancer treatment. And keeping your healthcare is crucial at this juncture.

      Survivor’s guilt regarding being able to work while others cannot is a normal feeling. Everyone is different and in different circumstances. We can only act in our own best interest.

      Wishing you the best,


  2. Sandy Bahe had this to say about that:

    I worked part-time, because I have only worked part-time since my son was born. He is 32 LOL. I have the best job in the world, in that it pays me parttime would I would have to work fulltime for elsewhere. I am so GRATEFUL. I have to admit, I could not have worked fulltime. And sometimes I didn’t even work parttime, but my boss is the one who started the Cancer Wellness Center in our area so she was beyond understanding. Again, I am so grateful. My best friend is a Principal and she has had teachers work full time and I am amazed by this, and heartbroken that they have to (assuming that said teacher has to?) The germs alone would share me during chemo. I am in awe of anyone who works fulltime and I am heartbroken for those who HAVE no other choice. I would love for cancer patients to be able to get temporary “disability pay” for use during treatment, but I know that it is not realistic. I know I am talking too much but I have to say another thing lol. During my cancer treatment I would occasionally go to our local McDonalds to get a coffee when I could handle it. A young woman working there noticed my bald head, she had cancer also. And she had little kids and this was her job. No insurance…….while she was well taken care of by Medicare, she had to take two trains and a cab every week to get to treatment, that broke my heart. All I had to do was drive 10 minutes down the road and park my car.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Sandy,

      First of all, your boss sounds fantastic! The woman at McDonalds breaks my heart because cancer treatments are tough enough, but the travel is difficult.

      You raise a good point about the teachers who work full-time. Germs are a major obstacle to consider, but if they don’t have a choice, then what can they do?

      I’m so glad you have that support system at work. All of us who have faced cancer are in different circumstances, unique to us, and we need to have compassion toward everyone.

      I really like your idea about cancer patients getting disability pay. Heck knows, those who are afflicted with cancer could surely use it.

      Thank you for your comment; I appreciate it.

      — Beth

  3. Nancy Stordahl had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    I was working as a substitute teacher the spring of my diagnosis, and “luckily” my treatment was heaviest during summer months. I never went back to substitute teaching the next fall though. My stamina for that grueling job just wasn’t there anymore and yes, I was lucky to have the option of not going back. I turned to working/writing from home instead. Sometimes I felt/feel guilty about this. At the same time, sometimes I felt/feel envious of those who continued working through treatment and who still work full time. There is always judgment, no matter what we do, especially regarding what women do, for some reason. And often we judge ourselves most harshly. We sure don’t need more walls in Cancer Land, or anywhere else for that matter. It infuriates me when some are forced to work when they truly aren’t up to it out of fear of losing healthcare. Healthcare should be a right, not a privilege, in a country like the US. But I am going off topic now. Bottom line is, we all muddle through as best we can. Thanks for writing about this, Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that there’s judgment particularly when it comes to women. I’m starting to believe that women are oftentimes more harsh toward others. I don’t know why this is.

      Substitute teaching is a tough job, and it’s understandable that you no longer had the stamina for it. Cancer treatment is brutal. There’s no reason to feel guilty for your choice to work at home.

      If it works for you, then it’s the right thing. Each person is different, and each of us makes our decisions based on a variety of factors.

      I agree with the whole healthcare issue. Everyone deserves healthcare. A developed country like the US needs to make it a right; I agree. And now I’m off topic, too.

      Thank you for your insightful comment.

  4. Deb french had this to say about that:

    Thanks for this article. I worked all the way through my chemo and herceptin treatment . I really had no choice as my husband and I had begun a new business two months before my diagnosis. Looking back that time is such a blur … I would have loved to not have had to be at work all the time. I’m sure I looked like a drag queen by the time the wig and makeup got slapped on everyday. Everyone kept telling me how marvelous I was and how well I was coping. My favorite was when I was told that “so and so “was much worse than I was as they could not work at all. I could have screamed in frustration and weariness. It taught me never to assume how someone is feeling as appearances are deceiving.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Deb,

      Thank you for your comment. Your experience with cancer treatment and working full-time was harsh enough. Then you have some dimwit telling you that a person who could not work during treatment had it worse than you. I don’t blame you for being infuriated.

      Just because someone works during treatment, no one should assume that person is doing well. For me, this was the most difficult thing I had to endure.

      Good luck with your business, and I’m so glad you shared your experience.

  5. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,

    This is an important topic. I actually worked through treatments, but I did it from home. My old boss was kind enough to allow me to work remotely during my chemo treatments. I returned to the office after finishing chemo and was able to handle radiation + my regular work schedule. I was very tired! I thought radiation was going to be much easier, but it wasn’t for me. I never felt judged by other patients about working from home, but I sensed some people at work were “jealous” that I was able to “get away with my schedule”. I would have rather come into the office, feeling healthy, instead of being home being sick. Just glad I kept my job.

    Everyone reacts to treatments differently. I was advised to “take it easy” and to take the time I needed to recover. But like you, it felt more normal for me to work. It was tough though.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your experience. I hope all is well. xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you for your comment, Rebecca, and for sharing your story. It’s amazing to me that some people were jealous of your situation. It is so much better to be healthy and go to work.

      I’m glad your boss was so understanding.

      Take care,

Add Your Comment, Feedback or Opinion Here

Your email is safe here. It will not be published or shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>