So July 1st is my first official day back at work. This whole return to work thing is a little more complex than I was expecting, at least in my head.
For a start, I feel really torn. On the one hand I'm excited to be getting back to normal. 'Back to the real world' is a statement I've heard a lot (more on this later). On the other hand, I have this constant sense of foreboding and therefore a concern that I should be maximizing time with my family, and 'bucket list' project time. I find myself doing mental gymnastics. Can't wait to get back to work...Oh jeez what if the cancer comes back really quickly and I cause my work colleagues more hassle ?...Will I feel like I've misspent my time if this all ends up being terminal after all?...Should I be working on something that creates more 'legacy'?....But hang on, I might be cured and miraculously live another 40 years, so I can't just retreat from working life at the age of 36.
I find myself thinking about the return to work terminology a lot. "Back to normal". "Back to the real world". I'm saying these words a lot myself despite having realized over the last 10 months that work, and especially corporate life, are very far from the "real world". I play great mental games on the train in the morning. I've always enjoyed people watching but it's moved to a different level these days. I look around the carriage and wonder how many people fall into the 'lucky' category - those that are healthy, drama free and just ticking along nicely - and how many have some kind of shit going on. I look for the signs of shit times on peoples faces, or in their postures or attire. Rings under eyes. Exhausted dishevelment. A surrendering slouch. If I spot something my imagination goes wild. Within two train stops I can have someone with a slightly yellow complexion pegged as the victim of peritoneal cancer, with metastases that has overwhelmed their liver, and I quickly conclude that they are probably on their way to see a lawyer to get their testamentary documentation in order....a trip I did several times myself. I just understand now that while many people are heading into work, blissfully ignorant and probably fretting about the most pathetic crap, there are so many others dealing with the most awful scenarios. Which of those worlds is more 'real' ? Which is more 'normal'? I'm not sure anymore.
To complete the mental challenges there is my own sense of confidence and belonging. For as long as I can remember I have always suffered from overbearing imposter syndrome - even when my logical brain tells me I'm nailing it professionally, academically or even socially for that matter. Going back to work now I feel more like a fish out of water than I ever have. I've done a few half days in the office to ease back in before my official start date and despite there being nothing about my outward appearance that suggests I have stage 4 cancer I have this overwhelming feeling that I'm returning as a lesser person, and that this is painfully obvious to everyone. I doesn't help that chemotherapy has dented my short term memory, among other things - 'chemo brain'.
I also still need to find a good way of explaining to people that I'm not necessarily 'cured'. Every time I bump into someone it's common to get a 'so glad you beat this' type of comment. I really appreciate the sentiment but I feel a bit devious if I don't confess that the odds are still higher that I haven't beaten it. On the other hand I don't want to burst anyone's bubble and sound all negative.
It would be remiss of me - and doing any other cancer sufferer reading this a disservice - if I didn't also fess up to some of the physical return to work challenges. I confess I didn't buy into this whole 'fatigue' thing. No, that wouldn't be me. But just a couple of half days in the office bookended by an hour long commute left me feeling dog-tired. My plan is to actually go back full-time, five days a week, but with some flexibility - against the advice of my assigned rehabilitation consultant. This is mainly because I just can't see myself doing my job part-time very well. But I've promised myself to revisit this if it's not working out.
I still can't properly feel my feet, which creates some problems. I have lingering peripheral neuropathy - a side effect of chemo that I'm told should subside after 6 months, but can occasionally be permanent. It's not too serious - just a slight numbness and pins & needles type feeling. However it makes a return to running impossible (not that I was an elite athlete pre-cancer) and occasionally causes me to fall over my own feet, particularly on stairs.
And then there is my bowel. Having had a foot of it removed, it remains...well, problematic. I won't go into detail here but I can say that I tick nearly all the boxes on the anterior resection syndrome list. Fortunately "leakage" has not been visited upon me (and I'd like you all to know that - lol). My surgeon suggested I get a bidet installed at home and at work. I laughed out loud...and then realized he wasn't joking (I've learned to live without one). To combat all these issues, I've devised a cunning plan. During the week I'm only consuming Optifast shakes for dinner and breakfast, and then eating very small 'low residue' meals for lunch - and eating lunch as late in the day as possible. I know I can't do this forever but it's my short term plan. And you know what really pisses me off ? Even on a near starvation milkshake diet I don't loose weight. I'm a medical marvel - one of the few who managed to gain weight while on chemotherapy.
Then of course every ache or pain I have quickly becomes, in my mind, evidence of some new metastases or other medical catastrophe. As I sit here writing this I have a dull pain in my abdomen and I've convinced myself it's a tumor or another haematoma. Oh well, I'll just have to wait for that surprise to be revealed at my next scan in a few months !
Aside from starting work what else is planned you ask...
- Next scan - a surveillance CT - is scheduled for mid September.
- Finishing off a few of my committed non-cancer projects. Some updates coming soon :)
- Getting the Highland Urban Farm project up and running is a big focus (and money pit). We just got our Development Application approved to start work on the cottage (you can follow our progress on Instagram or Facebook).
- Doing stuff I didn't do over recent months because I thought I might die and I didn't want to waste time and money just in case - like going to the dentist (funny conversation with Dentist was had when she asked me to explain my recent lack of check ups).
- I've been keeping notes on funny stuff that has happened during this whole cancer 'thing'. Trust me, colon cancer can be funny. In what other context do you find yourself having an earnest conversation with someone about your sphincter, or being guided by a nurse to identify yourself on the Bristol Stool Chart (bet you didn't know there is an actual poo classification system). I'm trying to figure out how to use this material. Bowel cancer advocacy ? Stand up ? Dunno, but I feel like there is something there. Any suggestions ?
- I've committed to being a very active supporter / advocate for Dying with Dignity when the Assisted Dying Bill comes back before the NSW Parliament, probably in mid 2019. However this time I want to have an action plan well before the vote to maximize the value of my contribution. Still can't believe we lost by one vote!
Any other ideas ?
Keep well everyone !