Cancer rots. But try working with cancer

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My mom, looking pretty damn good, if I may say so

My mom has cancer. She’s had some type of cancer for over 10 years now; the latest was diagnosed at Stage 4 about two years ago. Since then, her body has acted like a fireworks factory: stuff just keeps exploding. But she somehow struggles on.

Living with cancer sucks. But you know what’s worse? Working with cancer. Read this moving story in the Wall Street Journal today:

Andrew Flaton survived a brain tumor as a child, but he still suffers from the effects of his cancer treatments. One of his most challenging tasks: holding down a job. He was left almost entirely deaf after undergoing chemotherapy. He can’t work more than four hours a day without feeling exhausted, and he often suffers from panic attacks, which he struggles to keep under control. The 25-year-old Oakville, Mo., resident earns less than $700 a month and lives with his grandparents, and the longest period he has spent in one job — doing part-time filing work for an anesthesiologist — is two years.

My boss, a respected and longtime editor here, had a nasty form of cancer a few years back. He worked throughout his illness and his treatment. I guess it didn’t occur to me until I read this Journal piece that my editor is lucky: he was already an established professional by the time his illness hit, in a workplace that wanted to stick by him.

Imagine surviving the most dreaded of childhood diseases only to discover you can’t attain many of your dreams and goals anyway.

Over my recent visit to tend to my mom in Japan, I picked up a novel that my sister had left there. It was My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult, and it’s about a family who struggles with one daughter’s cancer.

I suppose it had particular resonance for my sister, who is a pediatric oncology nurse; for many years before she left to have four kids of her own, she nursed children with cancer. Me, I read it as a parent, trying to fathom the choices these people had to make to care for their children. It made me wonder: if, gods forfend, my own progeny suffered such a fate, would I do what they did to save them? And at what cost?

…at the cost of a fulfilling career for the patient, for one. As a parent, you think that’s a small price to pay for the survival of your child. But if I was the child—if I had battled childhood cancer and won, and then discovered I would never hold down a job as a journalist—I think the victory would feel bittersweet.

Sorry for the downer post. It’s a contemplative day. Let’s end it on a kumbaya note and give thanks for our own relative health. Anyone else out there working through chronic and debilitating illness?