Since my last post a few weeks ago, I have returned to work full time and I began teaching again last week. I am grateful to be up and about and back at work, although it’s been quite busy. Seeing my colleagues and being welcomed back with collective open arms has been amazing and it is energizing to be around my students again. Most of my students are highly motivated and energetic, which is certainly contagious to an extent. It’s also just good for me to get back into a routine. As much as I enjoyed being a lay about after I went into remission, it is time to become a functional member of society once again.
I’d be lying, though, if I said that the transition has been 100% smooth, and this largely has to do with the fact that I’m tired in a way that I didn’t even think was possible now that I’m recovering and working at the same time.
For those that don’t know, Jeff works an hour south of where we live while I work an hour to the north. We quite often leave the house at 8am (or earlier) and return around 8pm, assuming he doesn’t have an event at work in the evening. Under normal conditions, this leaves a couple of hours for us at night to cook, eat and clean up dinner, do some work/answer emails, and get ourselves ready for the next day before we go to sleep just to get up and do it all over again.
This schedule was beginning to wear on me before I got sick, and in a sick/twisted way of looking at things, cancer gave me a break from that hellish commute and schedule. Now that I’m back at work, talking to colleagues/students all day and teaching three 3.5 hour lab sections a week wherein I’m often on my feet/talking for a majority of the time, I’m pretty much the walking dead right now. I might look okay on the outside, but I feel like this:
The fatigue I feel at this point is essentially a combination of the types of fatigue I felt while in treatment. When I was undergoing chemotherapy, I felt like I had weights attached to my arms and legs all the time and it took a tremendous amount of effort to move from place to place. In fact, the thought of even getting up and out of the recliner was overwhelming at times. During my radiation treatments, that feeling was replaced by being so sleepy. Now, I have an amalgam of those two things going on – it takes an extreme amount of effort to move, and then the second I stop moving again, I want to sleep. That’s Newtonian physics for you – a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest.
I’m finding that I can get through about 2/3rds of my lab classes before my body begins to scream at me to sit down and chill out for a second, and I certainly don’t recover by the next morning as I did before I got sick. I’m learning now that I need to rest somehow more throughout the labs, although I find that if I sit down, my legs begin to throb and I have a tough time getting going again. I almost feel like I’m better off just staying “in motion” throughout the entire lab, letting adrenaline carry me through, and then crashing at the end of the class in my office. To that end, I’ve covered up some of the windows and got a comfy chair that enables quick cat naps when I need them. During my last class, I also tried to lean on counters and things a bit more as opposed to fully sitting down.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me not to push myself too hard, I wouldn’t need to work anymore. The problem is that It is very difficult to figure out what my body can handle until I try and then moderately succeed, crash and burn, or something in between. I’ve been relatively sedentary for so long now that it is difficult to figure out what “pushing myself too hard” is until it’s almost too late to pull back. At least I can get a sense of what works for me/what doesn’t and adjust from there. There are a few things I’ve learned so far, though:
1) Put a smile on your face and try to look pulled together even if you don’t feel like putting in the effort. Having cancer has taught me many things. One of the most important is the idea that you can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react by having an overall positive attitude. Being positive generally makes me feel better physically and mentally and feeling good about how I look only boosts my resolve to have a positive attitude throughout my day. On top of that, I find that people react more positively to me and my ideas if I have a smile on my face even when I feel like crud on the inside. That said, keeping all of this up takes a lot of energy sometimes so it can be a bit of a double edged sword.
2) More practically, get rest whenever you can. I’ve learned over the past few weeks to take quiet moments for myself when I can. This could mean that I close my office door, turn out the lights, sit in my cushy chair and try to catch a few winks for 15-20 minutes. It could also be as simple as leaning up against the wall for a few floors during a solo ride on the elevator. If you’re feeling out of breath after you climb a flight of stairs and don’t want anyone to think you’re struggling a bit, read some flyers on the cork board in the stairwell. Why feel like I need to hide that I’m hobbling along? My co-workers have been beyond supportive and really have, in some cases, become like a family away from home. I don’t want anyone to worry that I’m not doing well (I’m really fine – this is all part of the recovery process and is common for most patients) and I really would like to feel “normal” again, as much as that is possible. I also don’t want people feeling like they need to help me more than they already have, and that was more than generous.
3) As a colleague recently reminded me, I don’t need to do things the same way I did before I got sick to have a successful return to work and the rest of my life as I knew it. For example, work emails should, of course, be answered in a timely manner but I should not feel the need to answer student questions at midnight or even the instant they hit my inbox. Essentially, I shouldn’t feel pressure to return to life as I knew it before cancer until I’m ready, if ever, and life will go on without a hitch for everyone else.
Fatigue isn’t the only issue I’m dealing with – chemo brain is becoming more and more of a problem since I’ve returned to work. I’m thinking it may be more apparent now that I need to use my brain on a regular basis. I’ve always had trouble remembering students’ names. That is next to impossible now. I’ve also been forgetting seemingly basic and simple words. There are also times where I have trouble focusing or forming coherent thoughts when writing emails to students or talking to them in class. In probably the most scary and unexpected event so far, I recently forgot how to hold a fork and knife in order to cut my food. I couldn’t remember how I held them – is it fork in the left hand and knife in the right or vice versa? Do I cut in back or in front of the fork? I honestly couldn’t remember this at all, as if it was my first time cutting up my own food. My muscle memory had momentarily escaped me. I ended up having to put the utensils down (probably best for the safety of all around me) and allow my brain to reset itself. Fortunately, everything came back and I enjoyed my chicken Caesar salad. Still, it was a terrifying feeling and I’m definitely going to talk with my hematology oncologist about it during my next visit as I think it might be something that needs to be addressed in more detail.
I also can’t help but get anxious about every sudden muscle twinge in my shoulders or when I break out into a sweat or have sudden feelings of exhaustion. (This last point means I’m always in a minor state of anxiety.) With every instance of any one of those things, I can’t help but immediately think, “Oh my God, IT is back. The cancer is recurring.” I know, in my rational mind, that while my symptoms were similar to those, they were much more extreme and I felt absolutely awful but my irrational mind can’t help but catastrophize everything. It is a difficult place to be mentally and I don’t know how much I can expect it to change.
Despite all of this, though, I’m very happy to be back at work and thinking about all of these things as cancer patient in remission. There are certainly worse problems to have and I know it will all get better over time.