Okay, so I decided to document the difficulties in returning to ‘regular’ work after cancer. You’ve endured some rough treatment and been off work for a while, but while there remains physical damage and recovery is ongoing, you’re on the way to healing. Judge for yourself if what follows is a grizzle. For me, I want to get it on record, if only to highlight what not to do.
The first challenge is how work handles it. It’s big news for you, but it’s a shock to them also. Initially, this was done well by work. They were sympathetic to the news and gave me plenty of space. HR was in contact to see what I needed and how they could help me. I was sent a care box and was told by one of the managers that they would handle the announcement within the broader team. That’s where the issue arose.
For reasons still unclear to me, the announcement was never made. Perhaps they were uncertain how to do it or if they should. If they were in a dilemma, they only had to ask me, but they never did. I was clear in my mind that I wanted it out of the way, and the best time to do it was when I wasn’t there. I know it’s awkward. It can be a shock. Best to get it done quickly and without fuss and now rather than later. It never happened.
Some people heard about it. Others I told at different times. Unfortunately, most are still unaware of what happened to me, which makes it hard.
Now I’m working again and encountering people in the office; I never know how much people know about my situation. I tense up a little bit with the uncertainty and when the question comes routinely – “how’ve you been?” – I think twice before answering. Then, if I’ve answered with the truth, I have to deal with the shock and discomfort I generally get in response. I don’t want to have to deal with it and shouldn’t have to.
I’m much more comfortable with the people who know I had cancer. I have no problems acknowledging it or even talking about it, and once it’s out in the open, I feel like it can be normalised. That’s not the case with people who don’t know, which is most. I’m more tentative with them, even stand-offish.
The fact is that someone only has to look at me to know something happened. Get it out of the way. Ask! It might be a little unsettling, but I won’t mind. I much prefer that it wasn’t overlooked or ignored.
Making it more difficult is the damage to my hearing and my speech. I miss most of what is said in noisy environments. It means that I disengage and, more importantly, miss things being said. I’m sure anyone hard of hearing knows what I mean. You nod along as if you’re getting it, straining to hear and watching the speaker’s lips as if that might help. Finally, there comes the point when it becomes too hard, and you tune out. I’m not being rude: I can’t understand you.
What’s even more difficult are the difficulties I have with speech. On balance, this isn’t nearly as severe as my hearing loss, but it’s tougher psychologically.
My hearing won’t get any better, but my speech probably will, and it’s probably not nearly as bad as I fear it is. It’s just, for some reason, how you speak and how you sound is tied up much more in your sense of self and self-esteem. Most of the time, I’m understandable, but there are occasions when my tongue feels thick in my mouth, or my mouth is full of marbles (actually, swelling). It’s a real struggle to articulate at those times, and my speech comes out thick and unwieldy. I’m embarrassed by it.
It means I don’t open my mouth to speak nearly as much as I used to, except with friends. The most significant difference, I find, is that I don’t risk spontaneous utterances. Someone says something which, previously, you’d respond to with a one-liner or a quick reply, but you now remain silent. When I am talking, I find myself casting ahead, reviewing the things I want to say and searching for a simpler way to say them. I was an articulate, well-spoken man. Now I avoid difficult words and words with multiple syllables. There’s no way I could read this post I’ve just written.
In combination, this makes me someone I don’t want to be. If people understood my circumstances, I’d feel much less self-conscious. That’s the original sin.
The other thing that aggrieved me was how I was treated when I was at my sickest and off work. I heard from no one but my direct manager, and I had to contact him half the time. No-one wished me well or checked in on me just to say we’re thinking of you. No-one wished me luck before my critical surgery or when I started chemo and radiotherapy. There were no cards, flowers or fruit when I was in hospital, and maybe I’m old-fashioned expecting it – I just think it’s a box that should be ticked.
I felt forgotten. Abandoned. Cancer is an arduous and lonely business. I needed all the support I could get. I got practically nothing.
When I spoke to my manager – perhaps 5 times over the period (though he did visit once) – it felt like it was a chore for him. I always had the sense he was doing something else and not really listening. Maybe he was – he was flat-out filling in for me – but I would have welcomed even that little bit of honesty.
Then he started to ask when I was coming back to work. It became tedious. I’ll come back when I can, I’d answer. Then he’d ask the next time again. It felt all about that. When could I help them out? It was from a sense of duty, and even guilt, that I returned to work in February – prematurely, I think.
Even then, now that I was speaking to him more often, he was always asking me when I would increase my hours. I got angry with it. I’d tell him once, twice, three times, I will when I can, but it never seemed to get through to him. All the while, I thought all he cared about was work. My health, my well-being, was not a factor.
I know it paints a poor picture of my manager, but in his defence, he was very much under the pump and not getting the support he should have. On top of that, he’s not very good at these things. I sometimes wonder if he has a bit of a savant about him. Sometimes he’s so clueless that it’s almost funny. He retains a naivety that many years of working in the rough and tumble of the corporate world haven’t managed to change. It’s endearing in a way, and I find myself not taking it as personally as I might otherwise.
But then he suggested I should look for another job internally. That was stupid and unbelievably naive. Of course, it pissed me off. I was astounded. Maybe he meant well, but I think really, he figured if I got a job somewhere else, he could replace me with someone full-time. This was at the height of him nagging me about increasing my hours. I don’t think our relationship has been the same since.
I have other issues with work, but they’re not a part of this. Getting sick, as I did, is pretty hard work. You’ve got your hands full just staying alive and getting from one day to the next. You can’t have too much support. But, you get through – what else are you going to do? And it’s thanks to the doctors and nurses, the incredible professionalism of the surgeons and medical science. And it’s thanks to your friends. Sadly, it’s no thanks to others.
I’m willing to move on from it. I’m not someone who harbours grievances. It’s not for me to judge. Karma will look after that. Unfortunately, I’m reminded of it every day at work. I don’t think that’s going to change.