Every week, people ask me how Audrey is doing (note: if you’re just joining this series, Audrey is my wife, and she’s in the process of being treated for colon cancer, which was discovered around nine months ago). We have several hundred friends keeping up with our journey via email and dozens of others who ask in person.
I provide the facts and figures, the next steps, and then I shock my inquisitors. I tell them that all through chemotherapy, Audrey is still working. Every two weeks, she misses a Monday for treatment, and then she is back at it on Tuesday. Friends, family, cancer survivors, nurses, and colleagues cannot believe she is still engaged daily at her place of employment. But she is, without fail.
In this final post in this series on work and cancer, we explore how work has proven to be a source of joy, meaning, and grateful distraction, during this strange season of our lives.
The Great Day
Chemotherapy began in January. Since then, we’ve been riding a 14-day wave. Treatment on day one, four days of exhaustion and hyper-cold sensitivity, and then fading random side effects. By the time Audrey feels normal, it is time for the whole process to start over again. On a Tuesday, day two of a recent cycle, I came home around 7. Audrey was already in bed, close to sleep.
“How are you doing?
“Tired, but I had a great day.”
These were not the words I expected.
“A great day?” I asked.
“Yeah, I had a great day at work, got so much done.”
That was it; then she went to sleep.
Being productive at work has helped Audrey get through this ordeal. It has also helped me.
The Productive Escape
Early on in this process, there were several surgeries and lots of time in the hospital. There were times when I had to step out of the recovery room for a sales call. And at other points, in the midst of the early press of sleepless nights and intensive doctors appointments, I had executive coaching sessions to deliver.
I remember walking into my first coaching session after days of hospital time. I wondered if this was a good idea. Was I in any frame of mind to offer effective professional attention? Was it fair to my client? Fair to my wife? Wise?
When I sat down with my client, I took a deep breath, and we dove into it. We had a productive session. At the end of our meeting, she was able to articulate the progress she had gained through our time together.
Afterward, as I taxied back to the hospital, I was relieved. Despite all we were dealing with, I was still able to be effective.
Throughout this time of trial, work has been a productive escape for me as well. A well-timed speaking trip, new clients, progress in VOCA’s strategic goals—all these and more have been a gift.
Work May Not Be a Burden
When someone is going through trauma or illness, we assume that they do not want to work. We are sure they should not be burdened with their responsibilities. We often say no for them without asking.
In our case (and granted, we are people who like to work), continuing to work at 90% or so of capacity has been emotionally strengthening — a needed reminder that our lives are not defined by cancer.
Work as Healer: How About You?
Work is a source of strength and healing. How do you relate this principle to your life? Let me suggest three options, not mutually exclusive:
- When someone around you is sick or injured, what might it look like to help them find ways they can be productive? Too much helping may not always be helpful. If you know anyone who has had orthopedic surgery, you know that their nurses get them moving and walking as soon as possible. Activity, even if limited, is a key to healing.
- Ask yourself how the work you do now could bring a healthy sense of agency and power in your life, especially when you face other areas of life where there is pain, loss, or frustration. The author of Ecclesiastes repeats this idea several times: finding joy in the work of our hands is a gift from God. And when our bodies are falling apart or not responding according to expectations, we need joy.
- If you’ve never experienced work that is satisfying, that is an expression of your God-given identity, that brings you some joy, you have some searching to do. Most of us can learn the types of tasks and responsibilities that flow from the talent we’ve been given. We can learn how to find opportunities in the job market where those talents are utilized, valued, and rewarded. We’d never imply that every job or every work season needs to be 110% fulfilling, and yet most of us can learn to work in ways that are life-giving and find places to do so, regularly. Knowing that, having that, is like an insurance policy for the times when you face limits and losses in other areas of life. Figuring this out now is a way to be ready for the future.
Thanks For Work and to Those We Work With
As we wrap this series, I want to share my sincere gratitude for being able to work. I work on work with clients in New York City and beyond. Audrey works on work too, managing the operations of a search firm that places clients all over the world. We are grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given and the occasions to use our skills daily, even in the midst of a major medical ordeal.
We are also extremely grateful for the people we work with. All have been true neighbors to us during this season. A special shout-out to David Barrett and the whole team at David Barrett Partners, who have loved on, encouraged, and been amazingly flexible with Audrey through this ordeal. And a shout-out as well to everyone connected with VOCA—our board, our team, our clients, and our donors. In addition to family, church, and old friends, all of you form the fabric of the safety net that we have come to depend on. You’re all amazing.
And thanks also to you, dear reader. Not sure how this series lands with you, but hope you’ll come to see work as a partial answer to the physical challenges of our lives. God was a worker, and when we work, his image in us is revealed. May you find the work that can carry you through times of struggle and pain. Work is the way we make it through.
This post was originally featured in Patheos.