This week’s guest blogger is Roberta Aberle, a MyLifeLine.org member. Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, but raised in Fort Collins, Colorado, Roberta Aberle has been surrounded by cancer her entire life. Diagnosed with the rare cancer, Primary Peritoneal Carcinoma Stage IIIC, on Leap Day, 2012; after a total hysterectomy in 2009 was performed to reduce her risk for developing cancer, Roberta has been both a fighter and advocate for rare, sub-types of cancer. “I’d love to see other cancers reach the level of awareness and fundraising that breast cancer has with the Susan G. Komen Foundation,” she says. Roberta has been on multiple treatment regimens since her diagnosis in 2012, with the goal remaining to see some phase of remission. Her treatment has included clinical studies, surgery, intraperitoneal/hyperthermic chemotherapy, but has also incorporated many holistic approaches such as journaling, meditation, aquatics and nutritional strategies. Her primary goal is to not only reach remission but to use her experience to help demystify the cloak around cancer for caregivers by speaking honestly and authentically about the insights gained living the role of a cancer patient.
I have always been the type of person whose identity is deeply entwined in her profession. When asked who I am or what I do, invariably, my answer would be about my role, my employer or my latest project. My largest friendship base is by far comprised of people I’ve worked with, some I regret to admit from over a decade or more ago you know who you are and how old you are too).
I’ve always taken great pride in my work and more specifically, my work ethic – a gift from my father – and work I have, like a dog at times.
It was a radical life change 6 years ago when I completely uprooted myself from my old profession (my “old” profession not the “oldest” profession) into healthcare. I left the high pay, the extravagant lifestyle, the travel (ok, so it is sounding a bit like the oldest profession in the world…) of marketing for some of the most prestigious companies in the country to go back to school, volunteer and earn only entry level salary. Ouch.
It was a disorienting and humbling period for me. I was all of sudden a novice. Had limited marketable skills and education in the grand scheme of hospitals and healthcare. The new landscape in which I worked was dizzying, not only about clinical care, procedures, equipment, medications and 10 different types of facilities, but government regulation, legalities, operations and the dreaded billing & claims. I was truly on foreign sands.
There were many days when I questioned my sanity about making the shift. I never thought I could be a master of such a large, complex puzzle like healthcare.
But in time, I gained ground. I got versed, I could sometimes spew a span of words that some people would ask what type of medicine I practiced, as if I were a doctor or nurse. How flattering. I built a solid reputation for myself again in a new work environment and educated myself tirelessly in my goal of becoming a competent, capable, healthcare quality improvement consultant. Before I knew it, the pay was back on par and the exotic lifestyle went back to what it was. Traveling coast to coast for work, working long irregular hours, weekends, nights but truly relishing every minute of it. I love to work. I love my work.
But then I got cancer.
Work was still primary in my life, but I had to come to work in the context of my disease. At first I went about it like I could manage it all, Oncology appointments, procedures, treatments, tests, labs, etc. until it was clear I couldn’t. I missed a day here and there and then more days and then more. Finally we established a schedule of what days I could and couldn’t work.
My best fortune in this past year has been my job at University of Colorado Hospital, where they have allowed me to function in whatever way I have needed. To shift and juggle, to be here or not, to do the work on my timetable and structure and never once pressuring me into doing too much, too soon.
For that, I’ve had it easy. For that, I am grateful to have my work.
It provides the right degree of distraction and normalcy as my colleague Susan said today.
And it does. Thank God it does. Because for a woman like me who is so wrapped up in her career, it is essential to who I am.
But yet, work is harder than ever.
I am right back to the point of feeling disoriented and humbled every day. It takes more focus, more concentration, more energy, more attention that I can sometimes muster.
I need, no, require, the distraction and normalcy, but I can never predict what my body and mind choose to feel on any given day.
I can be right in the middle of crafting an e-mail and go entirely blank on the topic or the purpose.
I freeze in a presentation or meeting.
I take notes that I cannot decipher an hour later.
I make errors that I would never have made a year ago.
All due to the side effects of treatment and the preoccupation with a disease that can take every ounce of your energy to beat.
How do you do both? How do you maintain a career and beat cancer?
I find myself working 10x harder now to accomplish about half of what I normally could. I get frustrated with myself, I get down on myself, I feel less capable. No one is putting these pressures on me, I do it to myself. I cannot name a single person at work who thinks less of me or is unsatisfied with what I can do, which is a lot less than usual.
So why can’t I adjust my own expectations accordingly?
Why am I so driven to continue to perform at the level I used, when it is emotionally and physically impossible? There is no person breathing down my neck telling me to do or be more than I can right now. Some days the body is willing but the mind just can’t function. Some days it’s the exact opposite.
When it’s a matter of life and death, does work really even merit the stress it harbors? Of course, you need the income to pay the medical bills, but setting that aside, is it important to spend your days working or living?
Maybe that’s why so many people change their careers after a life altering illness. Maybe it’s different for me because my work always has equated to so much of who I am.
It’s a part of my essence.
I don’t punch a time clock.
I don’t do the same job, over and over, day after day.
My job is not 9 – 5 with the luxury of an hour for lunch.
My work is not something I can do halfheartedly.
Never has been like that and I have never wanted that.
My job is consistently ambiguous, consistently demanding, consistently complex, and consistently intricate.
But in the framework of cancer at the forefront, it is harder and harder for me to do what I do.
Yet, I can’t walk away from it. I love my work. I have to figure out how to adapt to what I can do. I’ve done the career change; I don’t want to do it again.
I have been in this battle for 9 months, my treatments will last another 10 months. I am not even at the point of no return. How much harder will it get to do my job? How much more time will I miss?
What do you do, when you can no longer do what you are meant to do? You adapt, you modify, you redefine expectations. Not an easy task for a woman like me.
I’ll keep you posted as I figure it all out…..