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Working Through Cancer: Readers Respond

Network - Winter 2011

By Mary Brolley

The first time she was treated for ovarian cancer, Debbie Netterville wasn’t working. This had its advantages, to be sure.

She could rest when she was tired, for one.

But there were downsides, too, she says. “I had lots of time, so I spent it researching on the Internet,” she admits. “And the statistics were depressing. Finally, my husband Scott said, ‘You stay off there.’ ”

A year ago, when Netterville discovered that her cancer had recurred, she was working part time as a bus monitor at a school district in the greater Houston area. She accompanied Scott, a minister and part-time bus driver, on his daily runs.

She didn’t want to give up her job, which provided insurance. And because of her earlier experience, she hoped working would also give her a way to feel productive and ensure that less time was spent surfing the Internet or worrying.

When our “Working Through Cancer” series began last summer, we asked for and received e-mails from the true experts on the subject — our readers. Some told stories like Netterville’s — of work being a welcome distraction from undue worry, of accommodating bosses, of colleagues eager to pitch in with various types of support.

Others, though, expressed frustration with the difficulties of working (or returning to work) while dealing with fatigue, long hours in physicians’ waiting rooms and hassles with scheduling appointments.

For some, working through treatment is impossible

Our second article, in the fall issue, dealt with legal and insurance considerations of working through cancer.

In response, Suzanne Aschoff of Milwaukee, Wis., wrote to remind us that for some cancer patients, returning to work is not an option. Her late husband Lee received a stem cell transplant in 2008 — his only option against acute myelogenous leukemia. Unable to return to work because of his susceptibility to infection, he applied for and received assistance under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Social Security disability.

His coworkers pitched in to cover his responsibilities for months, yet he was eventually fired. This plunged him into a clinical depression that made recovery even more difficult, and he died 12 months after the transplant.

“I know MD Anderson has made great strides in treating cancer of all types,” Aschoff wrote. “But the protection laws have not kept pace. Assuring patients they are protected does them a disservice.”

It takes a village

Maria Garcia Vorajakkomol, who teaches English as a second language, underwent chemotherapy for liver cancer in 2009. She wrote to tell us about the support she got from the school administration and colleagues in her school district in rural southeast Texas.

Because she found that she needed four to five days after each treatment to recover, her principal and the school district offered her leave from the communal sick pool. An aide assigned to cover her classroom also proved invaluable.

At work, fellow teachers insisted on covering her outdoor lunch duty to protect her from infection.

“Working with people who care and are sincerely attuned to the difficulties in my situation gave me a true respect for the power of community,” she wrote.

“I’m blessed to be working in a small town that pulls together to help someone in need.”

Coworkers helpful throughout recovery

Netterville knows she was especially lucky to be working with her husband and caretaker. “Scott really watched out for me. If he saw I needed help, he was right there. And if I needed to rest when we were home, he made me lie down.”

She also remembers the support and daily distraction provided by the kids who rode the bus. They watched her go from wearing a “halo” wig with a cap for many months to the wonderful day she appeared hatless, revealing her own short, curly hair.

She also credits her faith with having been — and continuing to be — tremendously important in dealing with her illness and treatment.

Her advice to those with cancer: “If you can physically manage it, work. Mentally, it helps.”

She remembers, also, that as soon as Scott told coworkers her cancer had returned and she’d had surgery, they started sending meals home with him. Some had been through similar experiences and wanted to show their support.

“Cancer patients came out of the woodwork,” she marvels.

Read parts one and two of our series on working through cancer.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center