Professional Identity in Crisis

Today might be the hardest hit I’ve taken with this breast cancer crap.  In mid-September, I woke up and my lower back hurt.  I took it in stride, took two Motrin, and waited for it to pass.  It stayed.  I was pissed.  But I’m used to lower back pain and I didn’t pay much attention to it.  And then it got worse and worse.  Remember the Swiffer pole I  had to use for support?  Criminy!

Well, as it turned out, the lesions in my lower back flared as a result of Tamoxifen.  This actually means that there was a good tumor response.  I guess it’s like some biological equivalent of blowing up a balloon: it gets bigger before all of the air eventually goes out and it gets smaller.  The PET scan seems to have supported this hypothesis.  But the pain is back in earnest.  I’ve had one awful day.

And it’s not the pain.  It’s what the pain is doing: it has made me miss so much time at my place of employment that I can no longer manage the important projects for which I am responsible.  I cannot serve my constituents properly because I am not always in the office when they call or email me.  I cannot support my colleagues because I am unable to lift anything over five pounds which, as an archivist, is not good.  Because I cannot predict when or where this pain will flare, I don’t know my schedule.

I understand that not everyone can relate to this, but my career is very much tied up in my identity.  Retiring never seemed real to me.  I always told people that I would work into my seventies–and I wasn’t complaining about the economy.  I am one of those people who forgets to take vacation days, gives up personal days and floating holidays, and carries over the maximum number of vacation days that I can.  I stay close to home, I visit with my buds, I enjoy keeping a clean and pleasing home, and I work.  And I love my work.  I worked hard to achieve the amount of success that I have.  Very hard.

I started college in my mid-twenties.  I worked full time to get through college.  I worked full time when I went to graduate school.  And for years I always had no less than two or three jobs at one time.  Indeed, when I moved to New York in 2004, I was making enough money to have only one job.  For two years–maybe three–I didn’t know what to do with myself in the free hours I had each day.  It wasn’t long before I had two jobs again.  I was teaching: not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  Because I love it.

This fucking cancer threatens what, for me, is an almost idyllic existence.  I’m exhausted, I’m in pain, and because I can’t do what I love to do unencumbered, I feel like a complete and total failure.  No one can depend on me.  I can’t even depend on me.  I have hired a housekeeper even.  I love that my home is clean and spotless, but this used to be one of my activities.  An activity that I really enjoyed.

I see my career negatively impacted like this and it’s worse, for me, than getting a diagnosis of breast cancer.  For real.  No hyperbole.  I had no idea that my life would so negatively impacted so soon.

Cancer did not scare me as much as professional failure does.

This is what pure unadulterated fear looks like for me.

I want to run.  But I can’t move.

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30 Responses to Professional Identity in Crisis

  1. dglassme says:

    Thanks for sharing Sarcastic Boob.

  2. mike says:

    i’m sorry scorchy. i can empathize with you. i’m not going though the psychical pain but the mental pain. i can not do the things that i once did, i try my damnedest but it just doesn’t seem close. my apraxia get in the way. just to try and type this email is a feat. i pause to spell “once” and to think about how to spell to for about 5 min. and that’s not all, the post continues “too or to”, try or triey”, spell or speel”, and so on. thanks heaven for spell check. SURVIVING! love Mike

  3. dear scorchy,

    i was a hospice nurse for 30 yrs, loved it, was good at it, and felt as though it was as much of a calling as a job. the day my husband’s femur fractured in half, heralding his diagnosis of multuple myeloma, in 2009, curtailed my career. though i struggled to keep up with all my professional requirements in the hope of returning someday, i finally had to face that i would never be able to work again when i was diagnosed with ST IV metastatic BC just 3 years later. still, i keep thinking that if my chemo brain would just let up, i might be able to contribute in other ways, maybe in the nursing education field. the longing to be able to do what you love, to live up to the work ethic so long in being cultivated, the fulfullment, comraderie with co-professionals is such a heavy loss. added to that loss the pain, fatigue, brain fog (nasty bastard, that one!) and feelings of failure seem like such a dreadful burden to heap onto having cancer.

    i suspect the feelings of failure are paramount at this point. perhaps the support you are receving from your readers, the gratitude we feel for the raw and candid words you write about how we, too, feel, will allow for you to forgive yourself for something that is beyond your control. keep writing and reaching out with your incredible and unique style, i wish for you that all of the good that you have done in writing your blog, helping so many of us, will come back to you more than a thousand-fold, and that whatever happens you will find your way to a peaceful and fulfilling outcome.

    warm hugs,

    karen, TC

    • Scorchy says:

      That we are in the same boat sucks–cancer sucks! But the kind of unique–albeit bittersweet–camaraderie is priceless and get me, you, all of us, through so much. I didn’t know, until I was inducted, how much cancer takes away. I pray that I won’t need to visit an infusion room for many years. Chemobrain would disable me. I’m sure of it.

      But until then, screw it, we will endure and overcome that which we can. Thanks for being there, Karen. I wish you nothing but good things.

  4. Marie says:

    I’m hoping that your time with the mother ship is time to let go of all worries. Being in the present is really all there is. Thinking of you.

  5. Heidi says:

    I know that the feelings of feeling unproductive etc are mostly caused by our own thinking but I wonder if our employers and work colleagues could do anything to help us with our transition issues? That is, if they knew or were educated about them. Hmmm….there’s so much focus on the physical aspects of BC and treatment that I think there’s a big piece of the puzzle missing for those of us in the workforce, now that BC is affecting more and more ‘young’ women. Unfortunately I don’t have the answer but its def something that needs exploration. Just call me Columbus, or should that be Columbo 🙂

  6. Sara P says:

    Wow, I can feel your pain in this blog. It is so sharply and clearly expressed.

    It’s also interesting to read so many other women who felt the way I did when, for the 6 weeks between my diagnosis and surgery, I could barely function at work, I was so obsessed with 3 biopsies, genetic testing, and weighing my surgical options. Because I didn’t know WHEN my surgery would be, I had to step away from 2 different new business pitches and bring in a consultant to handle my responsibilities because I just didn’t know when I would be gooing under the knife and I couldn’t leave the rest of the agency in the lurch.

    Then, the last two weeks of radiation and the two weeks after that, I was SO sick (bronchitis that wouldn’t go away) and exhausted from the radiation, I ended up missing something like 10 days of work just during that time period. I never get sick but I just could NOT shake this thing. (Buh-bye to all my PTO.)

    Meanwhile, I just felt so marginalized at work, like I had lost my grip on everything that was supposed to be MINE. And even after I started feeling better, there were days I just didn’t have it in me. And the first 3 months on tamoxifuck I felt like a fucking idiot most of the time. It’s a little better now. Now I just break out into a soaking sweat during new business pitches. So attractive. My office is now used to my getting up and adjusting the thermostat every 20 minutes during meetings and they suck it up and shiver for me. They’re good peeps. 🙂

    Anyway, it sounds like a lot of us can relate to what you’re going through. This disease robs us of so much. There’s no easy answer here, sweetie. I wish there was. It just sucks, all the way around.

    (I hope you weren’t looking for me to blow sunshine up your skirt.)

    ((hugs and more hugs, and some wine or vodka))

    • Scorchy says:

      Yes, that’s the thing: the first six months after this diagnosis you can’t function normally? The news itself is a form of debilitation; as you say, biopsies, doctors, tests, etc. Then the adjustment to the new normal–that takes months.

      Not for nuthin’, but having something blown up my skirt wouldn’t be so bad.

  7. Acacia says:

    Scorchy, I completely sympathize with what you are going through. My education and academic career is the thing I am most proud of in my life. Like you, I fought every step of the way for my degrees and to finally land a tenure-track position. Being smart has been the only thing I’ve every relied on and the fucking cancer is taking that from me. I’m with you girl. Right there.

    • Scorchy says:

      I’ve always gone by that maxim that no one can take away your intelligence or your education. No one can, but some thing can: cancer. Fucking cancer. I am sorrowful sad about that scan and resulting brain radiation. I think of you always. Absolutely ALWAYS.

  8. Susan says:

    Scorchy I am so sorry that you have to go through this and as you say your work means so much to you. As Caroline asked, “Is it possible to work part time?” Or maybe you are owed some days off. If you could get a handle on this pain that would be so much better for you. I know how much tamoxifen sucks, but I also know it can really help keep tumors at bay and even sometimes shrink them. Yet it is the nastiest drug I have ever taken. BC is so cruel the way it takes over your life. Is it possible that something like acupuncture could help with the pain? I am just grabbing at straws. I wish I had the magic wand that would take this away. I just want to be supportive and I am here to listen. Somethings got to give but there is no reason you should have to give up a part of yourself that means so much to you. There’s got to be a way. Meanwhile I send you positive thoughts and prayers..nothing heavy or religious…just hope for you that this can work out somehow. XoXoXo-Susan

    • Scorchy says:

      I am mulling options. I tried to do an informal part time arrangement, but I couldn’t stick to it. It’s not TFK, but the bone lesions in the lower spine causing me trouble. And, who knows, maybe it’s TFK too. I will have to investigate further. Thank you so much for your support. It means a great deal.
      Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

  9. Cancer is a nasty bastard. All I can say is I’m sorry and I’m listening too.

  10. Scorchy,
    I’m right there with you. I had to quit my job (which I very much loved and willingly worked eighteen hours a day because to me it was fun) and after a while I wasn’t able to do much house cleaning (which I also love to do) all because of this stupid bc. Now it takes me a week to do anything that I used to do in a few hours. It sucks to be losing everything that means so much to us, and to have to get used to things changing, weather or not we want them to. I hope that you can find a way to keep doing what you love, even if it’s not as much as you want. This takes so much more than our health away…it takes so much more than anyone without cancer will ever understand. Just know that you are not alone.
    All my love to you my friend,

  11. The Accidental Amazon says:

    Scorchy, I can very much relate to this. I withstood Tamoxifen for about a year and then had to get off of it. It was just one of the things that caused a huge amount of ongoing fatigue & brain fog, not to mention assorted aches & pains. But I need to be able to think & act clearly for my patients, and that’s not an option. At first, I had to cut my hours in half, but I ran through all my accumulated sick/disability time, so I had claw my way back to 80% of full-time, which is where I’ve been since. I have to work. Because it’s my identity & because I have no fallback position if I want to keep paying my bills.

    It was a big decision to go off tamoxifen. But when I dug into the real stats for my recurrence risk, the actual percentage of risk-lowering that tamoxifen was contributing just wasn’t worth trashing my life in the present & near-future, especially when the percentage for NOT having a recurrence was so much greater. And AI’s were not an option, because the side effects are even worse & I cannot afford the impact on bone density that they have. I did a lot of research & had a long talk with my med onc about it, and she agreed that my quality of life was more important & needed salvaging, and of course everyone would be keeping a close eye on me anyway. Four years out now, 3 of them off tamoxifen, I have not regretted my decision to go off it.

    There have been some longitudinal studies that demonstrate that even a year on tamoxifen confers ongoing & longterm risk reduction, so the 5-year protocol is considered outdated by some docs now anyway.

    We all end up living with risk after our diagnosis no matter what we do. It often comes down to a question of stats & numbers, and what numbers we can live with. It’s never easy sorting all this out. Gentle hugs, my friend.

  12. Crystal says:

    You have put into words exactly what I was feeling the six weeks I was home recuperating from my DMX. It was a crushing feeling, and the depression was debilitating. Now that I am back to work, I don’t have the energy to do what I used to. I sit at my desk when my students leave and the crushing fatigue takes over. I don’t think there’s been a day this week that I haven’t come home and slept for several hours and then gone to bed by nine….

    I wish there was a magic wand that could fix everything for us. Cancer is an big scary limbo land.

  13. Caroline says:

    Could you work part time? I haven’t been able to work full time in years but I do work two part time jobs – one from home. Could your employer adapt to you as a part time employee for a while – maybe you could go back to full time at some point as well? That way if the expectation was that you were only there half time, you would not be letting down your co-workers or constituents if the expectation was changed. Work is so important to us mentally as our health decides other things for us.

  14. Knot Telling says:


    I completely understand this. I had an important position in which I was able to accomplish a lot of good for groups and individuals. I loved my job and enjoyed the people and the environment.

    First I had to start missing a lot of work, and then I had to work from home, which meant giving up my favorite parts of my job, and then I had to give up translation, which was always my “best thing”.

    Sometimes I feel useless, and I miss working and I miss the contribution I was able to make to people’s lives. Cancer has taken so much from me, and thinking about the other things it will take from me before it takes my life scares me.

    I understand, Scorchy. We can’t do anything to help each other, but listen. At least we can do that.

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