Tuesday, June 26, 2007


My diagnosis with cancer has had a huge impact on my employment and the development of my career. Right from the beginning, the illness competed with work for my time and attention. I first noticed an increase in bleeding during bowel movements on Christmas Eve 2003. I was 31 years old and had just earned my PhD from the University of Michigan after five years of graduate school. I had moved my belongings to Washington, DC in November and was set to start a new job there in January. When the bleeding happened I knew that I would need to consult a doctor. But it would surely lead to weeks of testing, and I needed to be back in DC by January or else lose my job. So when the symptoms didn't immediately worsen I decided to wait until after the move.

Getting settled took time, and the bleeding was intermittent, so I didn't see a doctor until June. As expected, consultation led to testing and testing led to more testing. Eventually, all of the benign causes were ruled out and a colonoscopy in August 2004 revealed a cancerous tumor.

I needed to leave work for surgery, but as a new employee I had only a few days of sick leave accumulated. Fortunately, my employer offered a leave transfer program and my coworkers generously donated their own sick leave so that I would continue to be paid for the six weeks while I recovered.

After surgery I had to go through six months of chemotherapy. I started back at work full time during chemo minus a few hours per week for doctor's appointments. I did pretty well at putting in the hours, although I was less productive than usual since I felt sick half the time.

By May 2005 the chemo had shrunk the tumors and I returned to the hospital to have the remainder removed. That was a major, major surgery. A series of surgeries, in fact. I was hospitalized for weeks and unable to do significant work for months. Luckily my coworkers donated leave again so that I kept my position and pay while I recovered.

I returned to work full time in November of that year. My postdoc position was a two-year appointment and set to expire in January. Normally a postdoc like me would be busy publishing research papers and searching for a permanent job. But with all the medical treatment I hadn't made much progress. So I asked for and received a one-year extension of my appointment.

In early 2006 I was making rapid progress in my research and applying for permanent jobs. My goal was to be a college professor, possibly after a few years working in the pharmaceutical industry. But by June tests had shown that my cancer was regrowing and I started a second round of chemotherapy. It made me sick, my hair fell out, my energy level dropped, I had painful acne, yet the tumors continued to grow. I tried to continue working but really didn't get much done. More and more of my time was being consumed by doctor's appointments to manage the side effects and investigate other treatments.

I stopped my search for a permanent job since I was unfit to even travel for an interview. And what would I do if I found a new job? I couldn't be as productive as I needed to be and I could not imagine meeting the demands of a new college professor while going through chemotherapy.

In November of that year I flew to Michigan for Thanksgiving and to Boston for a scientific conference. During the travel I developed a pain in my leg that made it difficult to walk. I attended only a few hours of the conference to present my own research and had to skip the rest. When I returned to DC we found that tumors were destroying my pelvic bone and I would need radiation to alleviate the pain.

I quit my job in January 2007. The commencement of daily radiation treatments, on top of the pain and chemo side effects that I was already feeling, meant that I just couldn't be productive anymore. I applied for and received disability retirement and social security benefits. It's a relief to have a continuing source of income and health insurance, although it's half of what I earned while working and far less than I could make if I were healthy.

I'm feeling better these days. Radiation made me sicker for a few months but it did fix my leg. I'm walking normally now and feel well aside from the effects of chemo. I've returned to limited work on research with my former coworkers, only about ten hours per week. Things move slowly as a theoretical scientist; sometimes it's hard to maintain interest in research that will take years to have any practical impact.

Lately I've found it more rewarding to apply myself toward other kinds of creativity. This blog, for one, is something that I hope is significant and helpful to others. I am also spending a larger fraction of my time on hobbies of photography and game design. It's still frustrating and infuriating that so much of the past three years has been spent dealing with cancer while others my age are able to move ahead in their careers and focus on the normal concerns of life.


kate said...

"Frustrating and infuriating", indeed.

I see my friends living their lives in glorious normality and sometimes it's very hard to accept the changes that the cancer has forced on me.

Annette said...

I empathize with your condition.
Wish I could be of help to you.