While all the kids were heading in for their first week of school lately, I was celebrating one year being back at work. It feels like just yesterday that I was digging out my work clothes out from the back of the closet. Excited but nervous to get back after being away for 2.5 years. Switching over from the medical jargon of doctors appointment after doctors appointment to being on my A game at work. And the thought of it was a bit daunting.
Training my brain to get back into the day to day of responding to emails, sitting through meetings and conference calls all while still struggling with the side effects of treatments on the down low. Reading the same sentence three times over and not remembering what I read. Trying to follow conversations with what felt like the attention span of a four year old. Being in the middle of meetings and not being able to grasp at the simplest words. Wanting to scream “I had breast cancer!” and feeling this need to explain everything away. Wishing so badly that my brain would just operate like it once did without feeling like I was hitting this wall every time. Breaking out in a sweat and explaining to people that you’re having a hot flash only to be met with disbelieving eyes. The comments “Oh you’re too young for that”. Let me tell you…
There were days I looked out the window of my office, turned away from the hall to avoid others seeing the tears roll down my cheeks. Discouraged with myself, with everything. I sat silently in my struggles some days, trying to put on a brave face. Struggling again with what felt now like a silent disease. Looking normal from the outside yet feeling anything but on the inside. Leaving work mentally exhausted. Driving home and barely being able to keep my eyes open. Sitting down and sinking further and further into the couch with every ounce of energy spent. Spending my weekends recuperating from work rather than living and enjoying them.
But there were so many good moments this past year too.
I began to speak up for myself. Set boundaries. Became assertive. Learned how to say no and not be a people pleaser all the time. Accepted that taking notes and entering everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) in my calendar was just part of my new routine and that was okay. I took time for self care days whether it was booking myself in for a massage or getting out for a walk at lunch to reset after feeling like I just wanted to shut down. And I finally landed the position I had worked so hard towards before I was diagnosed.
As I slowly eased back into my job, I found things coming back piece by piece. Feeling more confident in myself. Having a supportive team that encouraged me to tell them when I was ready to take on more. There was part of me that wondered at times if I ever would be, especially on those days I would roll into work feeling so worn from the fatigue and insomnia. I wanted to give it a good shot. I wanted to prove that I was going to come back better than ever. I struggled with this huge part of me that felt like if I stepped back, I was somehow admitting I had failed. But I had to get honest with myself about how things were really going.
I finally broke down a couple months ago and told my oncologist I needed a break. A break from hormone therapy. A break from full-time work. I needed to put my health before anything else because I had fought so damn hard to get where I was today. I remember feeling this guilt as I walked into my manager’s office telling her that I needed to cut back my hours. And instead being told that whatever I needed, it was there. I started working part time doing four days instead of five. Giving myself an extra day on the weekend to rest, relax and most importantly enjoy my life. Realized that a lot of the pressure I felt I was putting on myself, probably more so than what anyone’s expectations were of me.
But through this whole process, I learned to give myself a lot of grace and compassion. Knowing that it will take time to heal and that it’s okay to step back. That admitting I’m struggling is a sign of courage and not of weakness. To not see it as a setback but a comeback. My life may be laid out now in terms of sticky notes, meal prepping, and whatever else I need to do to get me through each day. But this is what I need right now to be the best version of me. Working to live rather than living to work. And although I still have big aspirations and goals and strive for those things, it’s just a bit different now.
Some days now I find myself back at the hospital, this time mostly for work. Standing by those yellow dots that led me to countless surgeries, scans, and treatments. And to this day, it still makes me pause. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Walking over them not understanding their significance. But now that I’ve been there, I’ll never forget the road I once travelled down. And maintain hope that the one waiting ahead has better things to come.