Bringing Cancer to the Office

I started journaling through my diagnosis with cervical cancer at 3am. It was the day after I found out that the traumatic LEEP procedure I’d just endured to remove persistent high-risk HPV lesions ended up revealing early stage cervical cancer that signaled I would need a hysterectomy. My husband said, “You should write about this.” He knows it’s how I process everything, so when I couldn’t shut my brain off in the early hours of the morning, I got out of bed, sat on the couch under a blanket and stared into the blue light of my laptop for the next two hours, unloading every fear, checklist item, angry rant, and heartbroken realization onto a bright white page.

That night, I wrote the following:

“I’ve known that I have cervical cancer for 24 hours now and I’m already unable to sleep, pouring over the mental checklist I need to attack in order to get to the place I want to be more than anywhere else– Living a life that isn’t entirely consumed by the word that has run through my brain and stumbled off my lips constantly for the past day–adenocarcinoma. On repeat.

I have to inform so many people. Family. Close friends. I have to figure out how to tell my bosses that I have cancer. What a fun three words those are to drop into a room. I’ve done it 6 times now in 24 hours and my heart doesn’t race any less with each chance I get to practice.

I have to figure out how to take time off from work to recover from two upcoming surgeries. What’s FMLA? Short-term disability? PTO? Can I trust HR? Will they hire a temp who will somehow phase me out of my position? Gotta worry about all of those things until I have an ulcer. Added to checklist.”

A cancer diagnosis gives you two choices: A) Pull inward and isolate or B) Open up and be vulnerable. At first, my inclination was to go with option A. I was uncomfortable with getting attention, especially for something like cervical cancer. It’s happening in a really private area! Literally. So revealing this diagnosis feels a little like baring everything. Not to mention that there’s widespread misinformation in our culture about how HPV and cervical cancer happen, and it rarely paints the women who’s suffering in a positive light. It’s unfair and overwhelming.

I’d been working at my Graphic Design job for just over 2 years when I was diagnosed. Before that, I worked at a large, multi-site church in the Communications and Marketing department for about 4 years. The office culture there was familial. We let ourselves be seen and known, supported and loved by one another. It was a nurturing, one-of-a-kind work environment. When my time ended at the church, I had a lot of fear about going back to corporate work. I had worked as a Graphic Designer for corporations in years prior to my time at the church, and I remembered the facade of professionalism that seemed to be required to fit in and excel. I personally found it exhausting and often wished I could just be myself at the office. Church work gave me that freedom and I knew I’d miss it.

So far at my new job, I had made several friends in my department but there was still an element of guardedness in how we related to one another. There’s nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, it’s to be expected in an office environment. We have important work to focus on and personal time is for happy hour, right?!

But after journaling through the weekend, I decided that when I went back to work on Monday, I would choose option B and bring the honesty and transparency of the church environment into my corporate job. I’d be real and open and let myself be seen. I felt like keeping up the facade was going to be too exhausting for me, so I needed to face the fear of being known head-on.

It wasn’t easy. Vulnerability never is. I set my bag down on my chair in my cubicle, set up my laptop, grabbed my coffee and marched over to my boss’s office. I asked him if he had a moment, I shut the door, sat down on the other side of his desk and told him that I had a health update. My heart was racing. I could feel it in my stomach.

He stopped me right away, because he’s a fantastic boss, and said, “Before you say anything, I want you to know that you don’t have to tell me anything. You’re not required to.” I was grateful that he said that. But I still chose to share. “As you know, I had a biopsy done a few days ago, and unfortunately it revealed that I have cervical cancer.” Long pause. Dropping that bomb into rooms is like cruel, undeserved punishment for someone who just got The Call. Cancer is a job you didn’t sign up for and blowing up people’s emotions is your first order of business.

I told him I’d need a hysterectomy soon and hoped he could help me figure out what I needed to do about benefits and medical leave. He was immediately understanding and empathetic, offered to help however I needed, and told me about how he supported a former employee as he was battling cancer years ago. In the weeks to come, he even lobbied with upper management to get a contract production designer hired to help cover my workload throughout this time and when I’m recovering from surgery.

At 10am, I had my weekly email design and strategy meeting. We usually spend a few minutes catching up with one another. On this day, we’d learned that one of our coworkers had gone into labor the night before. Everyone in the meeting was so excited for her and I really was too! As the happy chatter continued, I knew the conversation would circle over to me soon and it would be time again for me to blow everyone’s joy into oblivion. Even though our friend was having her first baby, I had just learned that my husband and I would likely never get to have one of our own. I also knew the coworker sitting next to me lost his partner to cancer a few years ago, and I didn’t want to trigger grief in him. But I remembered the promise I made to myself. Option B. Vulnerability.

So when the meeting leader turned to me and asked about my weekend, with everyone’s eyes on me, I said, “Well, I don’t want to bring the room down. But this weekend I found out that I have cervical cancer.” Sucked the joy right out. I fielded a few questions to the room, and each person responded with empathy and kindness. A few colleagues sent me emails later that day with supportive messages, too. After that meeting, I asked another coworker that I spend quite a bit of time with to have lunch with me on a picnic table behind our office building. I quickly shared the news with her and she teared up and asked if she could hug me. She asked a lot of questions and was more supportive than I could have ever dreamed.

When something like this happens to you, you want everything to stop–but the world keeps spinning. It’s hard to care about the little issues that arise at work. Your perspective is widened, and suddenly the hangups of work projects become annoyingly miniscule worries to you. It’s hard to care enough. It can be draining and so frustrating. You constantly ask yourself, “But does any of this REALLY MATTER?” But your job remains as important as it was before you had cancer, so you learn to do whatever it takes to keep doing your best.

Andrea with her amazing co-workers.

Vulnerability has been a large part of that for me.

As time passed between my diagnosis and my hysterectomy, my coworkers often asked me how I was doing, which gave me permission to remove the corporate mask and be real. They left cards and notes and chocolate on my desk. We went to lunches together where I could share what was going on. My hysterectomy is coming up in just a week, and at the end of a really low couple of days this week, a sweet coworker popped into my cubicle and dropped off a prayer shawl, coloring books and pencils, a heartfelt card, and some snacks to help brighten up my recovery time. I have been so overwhelmed by the kindness these people have shown me. It’s really made going to work with this cancer cloud over my head so much easier than it could have been, if I’d kept it all to myself and continued to put vague appointments in my Outlook calendar.

Being completely real is a freedom we deserve, while we hold down our 9-5s and simultaneously do the work to get through a cancer diagnosis and all the darkness it can bring with it. For all the things I feared about how my vulnerability would be received in a professional corporate environment, the way my coworkers responded squelched every bit of insecurity. Choosing vulnerability forces you to learn to receive love and to accept yourself as you are, wherever you are in the process. It took courage to be real, but the payoff was priceless.

Andrea Bonhiver is a graphic designer and writer living in Minneapolis, MN with her husband of 2.5 years Justin and their dog-son, Louis. She was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma in 2018. She’ll undergo a hysterectomy on March 7, 2019.  

But It’s MY Hair!

A person might not think about how important their hair is to them until they face losing it. This is a real side effect for those who have been diagnosed with cancer and are on chemo. For some, hair loss is a distressing side effect and is a daily reminder of their illness.

My whole world crashed on April 13, 2018 when I was told those 3 devastating words, “you have cancer.” My life became a whirlwind of doctor appointments, surgery, radiation – both external beam and internal, and chemo. My initial treatment of chemo did not cause hair loss, but after a scan that showed the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes I started on a different round of chemo that causes hair loss. Not only did I have to face and deal with a re-occurrence, I had to deal with losing my hair. For me, the thought of losing my hair was devastating. I had several thoughts; ” I’ve always had hair, people know me by my blonde hair, and I like my hair…Why do I have to lose my hair?”

After finding out that I had a re-occurrence, people would ask how I was doing. My main answer was, I’m doing okay but I don’t want to lose my hair. After hearing some of their responses, I really didn’t feel like anyone was listening to me, listening to what my fear was.

-“Oh, it’s just hair.” Yes, it’s just hair but it’s MY hair and I don’t want to lose it.
-“At least you’re still alive.” True, I am very thankful to be alive, but I don’t want to lose my hair.
-“It will grow back.” Yes, it will grow back, but it’s MY hair and I don’t want to lose it.
-“It’s only temporary.” Yes, it’s only temporary, but I don’t want to lose my hair for any amount of time.
-“They have some nice wigs and scarves.” Yes, they do have very nice wigs and scarves, but I still don’t want to lose my hair.
-“Get a nice wig and no one will know that you are bald.” I will know that I have lost my hair.
-“It won’t take long to get ready in the mornings.” True, but I like to shampoo my hair and I don’t want to lose it.
-“Just think of all the money you will save not having to buy shampoo or get haircuts.” True, but I would rather spend the money for haircuts, I enjoy having my hair done.

I would hear so many different things, when all I wanted to hear was, “I know you don’t want to lose your hair and I’m sorry that you have to.” I wanted to just tell them yes, it’s just hair but it’s my hair and if it is no big deal you shave your head when I lose mine and keep it shaved until mine grows back, then tell me “it’s just hair. Funny no one took me up on that offer.

So, chemo day #1 came and went and about 2 weeks later, I started losing my hair and I was a mess – a hot mess to be exact. The first handful of hair that fell out was devastating and all I could do was cry, then the next handful and the next handful. Lose a handful of hair and cry was my routine for the following 3 days. On the 4th day I decided that I was tired of letting the “cancer” be in control and I chose to be in control – I don’t want to lose my hair, BUT I am losing it. That was the day I took control of when I was going to lose the rest of my hair and shaved my head.

Fast forward 2 weeks, my hair is gone and I have found some really nice head covers. I am slowly getting used to being ‘hair free” and I am sure that in time I will be rocking my hair free head without a scarf or beanie. What I have learned from this experience is that most people don’t think before they speak and often times they don’t know what to say. It’s not easy to see and understand that when you are facing something that is devastating and all you want is to feel supported and understood.

To all my teal sisters who have to deal with hair loss, I understand how you feel and I’m sorry that you have to go through all of this. Be strong and take control, don’t let the “cancer” have the control. For those who don’t have to deal with hair loss, just be supportive and understanding.
I guess there is a positive to losing my hair – at least I don’t have to shave my legs.

Angie McKibben is almost a 1 year cervical cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with stage 4a cervical cancer in April 2018. She is an RN case manager and animal lover. She lives in Zaleski, Ohio with her grandson, a crested gecko, a bearded dragon named Jasmine, and Mini – a daschund who believes she is Angie’s owner. She would like to see more cervical cancer awareness in her community and plans to be an advocate for prevention and early detection.