When I was younger, calling in "sick" was typically code for "sleepy," "found something better to do" or "didn't really feel like it."
But when I was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in June 2014, I knew I'd have to take a lot of sick days because I was actually sick or trying to prevent feeling even worse. Thankfully, I've gotten by with help from my coworkers.
Coping with chemo side effects
My melanoma treatment called for oral chemotherapy. I'd take five pills a day for three months. I thought it'd be like taking aspirin with few side effects, and I would just be rid of my cancer. Easy, right?
Well, of course it wasn't easy. I ended up getting very sick for quite a long time. I had night sweats, chills, fever, nausea, vomiting. Most of it came out of nowhere. I'd be sitting in my office, and the first chill would run down my spine and into my stomach. That usually was an indicator that I had about 10 minutes before I ended up a shaking, freezing mess, then be thrown into a sweaty fireball. It was like my internal thermostat was learning to drive a stick shift. Sometimes this happened five to six times a day, and I was usually up all night.
Balancing work and cancer treatment
When I was diagnosed with melanoma, I didn't qualify for unpaid, protected medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because I hadn't been a full-time employee with my company for 12 months.
But as fate would have it, I really lucked out with my coworkers, whom I've discovered are the best group of people. I was able to communicate openly with my boss and my coworkers, and I didn't feel judged or put down. "We'll figure it out" was always the response given to me when I asked about my schedule or my workload. They constantly reminded me to focus on my health.
When my boss found me under my desk, wrapped in sweaters and scarves, and shivering in front of my heater, she immediately called my husband to come get me. The next day, she brought in an army cot and set it up in an empty office. She told me that on days I just couldn't make it the whole day, I should just go in there, shut the door and take as much time as I needed. Not once did anyone bring up the work I wasn't doing. They focused on what I accomplished in a day. Sometimes showing up was all I could do.
There was no shaming, no guilting, no judgment. I didn't fear calling in, trying to explain I hadn't slept in four days and just couldn't leave my bed. As someone who's been in the workforce for a while, I never anticipated that I'd have a job that makes me feel loved and valued even at my worst.
On the day I completed my treatment -- and celebrated my 30th birthday -- they threw me a HUGE surprise party with ice cream cake and a ticket to go indoor skydiving.
Each year, my coworkers and I participate in a charity walk. As a part of the event we have to come up with a team slogan. Last year, we chose the slogan, "I work with superheroes." I honestly couldn't agree more. My coworkers are definitely my superheroes.
Read more about Kate on her personal blog.
Melanoma is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Melanoma Moon Shot.