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Random Acts of Kindness
Last August, in the middle of a surgery I was having, I woke up. I was at an outpatient surgery center, under anesthesia when I opened my eyes and saw blurry blue lights and faces leaning over me. “Hey, everybody! What’s going on?” I said in my perkiest voice. Then I heard someone say an expletive, followed by, “She’s awake!” and I was out again. Fade to black.
I told a couple of co-workers about this experience and we laughed. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a talker. Waking up and giving a cheery salutation during surgery most certainly freaked out the nurses and docs more than me and that makes me laugh. I need to laugh right now. In May 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A lump was discovered, and I quickly found myself in a whirlwind of mammograms, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), biopsies, and Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) scans. The lump was identified on a Wednesday and Friday at 2 p.m., I got a call at work telling me I had cancer.
I had yearly mammograms and no family history to speak of. How could this happen? I drank lawnmower smoothies, my husband’s name for the kale, ginger and apple juice blend that I enjoyed. We ate organic food; I worked out with a trainer. And I was diagnosed with an aggressive and invasive form of breast cancer. That Friday the doc called I was in shock. I called a family member to pick me up from work, and then I walked into my supervisor’s office. I told her that the doctor had just called and told me that I have cancer, and then I cried. She said something like, “We’ll get through this.” Another co-worker came in and softly said, “It’s going to be okay.” I found their words comforting then and over time I continued to repeat them to myself as a silent mantra when I had a difficult day.
This support was followed by calls and messages from the top of our department assuring me that my job was secure and that we would get my leave worked out. It was important for me to hear this. I was anxious about my diagnosis and that carried over to being worried about time off, finances and the effects of my illness on my husband and teenage daughter. It was overwhelming, but the folks at work were supportive. Women who had breast cancer came forward to tell me their stories. Women and men who had supported friends through breast cancer and other types of cancer shared their experiences with me. I received funny gifts that made me giggle, like a T-shirt that said, “Of course they’re fake; the real ones tried to kill me.”
One of the most devastating things was the loss of my hair. I had very thick hair all of my life and two weeks into chemo it began to fall out in big chunks. Again, co-workers who had been through the hair loss told me their experiences and assured me that it would come back — maybe even super curly like it was when I was younger. They said they supported me if I chose to wear a wig, a scarf or to just go bald wearing bold earrings.
My mom and daughter took me to get the Raquel Welch-brand wig that I now usually wear to work. It looks very much like my real hair if I were coloring it red and having it straightened except that it is a wig so I have to be careful how I part it or the base of the wig will show. Windy days downtown are a nightmare. One day I stood outside holding my hair down to prevent lift off and I’m sure I looked ridiculous! Co-workers now warn me if we are headed into a wind tunnel to spare me the indignity of chasing my hair. Sometimes I wear a hat over the wig since it makes more sense to hold down a hat than to hold down hair.
I always thought that I could just slap on the wig and be ready to walk out the door. It turns out that you have to style a wig. This is bad news for the girl who was used to running gel through her hair and heading out the door. So now I have no hair and I get to do my hair. The wig must be washed in special shampoo and carefully combed out and styled so the hair falls in a way that the sides of the wig do not show, something I learned one day when I tucked the hair behind my ear. I used to think I had bad hair days; they were nothing compared to a bad wig day. Again, I have co-workers who came to the rescue. A co-worker saw me struggling with my bangs and took me to another co-worker who is a hairdresser on the side, and she cut the bangs on my wig right then so they weren’t in my eyes and it looked more natural.
Before my mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, work threw me a surprise party. It was the first surprise party I have ever had. They showered me with gifts of silly T shirts, books, chocolate and magazines. Someone gave me a bunch of Readers Digest magazines and they were perfect for reading in hospital waiting rooms and doctors’ visits since the short stories didn’t require much concentration. I was surprised to receive all of these gifts because work had already formed a walking team to raise money for breast cancer and was walking to support me.
Many people texted me to see how I was doing, and soon it became difficult to respond to them all. I established a blog on www.CaringBridge.org and encouraged co-workers, friends and family to follow my journey there. I wrote my experience in the online journal, and guests to my site posted comments or “liked” the journal entries. I gained so much strength from the comments in my guestbook, and writing the journal has been a cathartic experience.
Some younger co-workers really struggled with my diagnosis and were visibly sad, lapsing into what I called puppy dog face whenever they saw me. I found these sad and often pitying expressions to be depressing and felt like I should try to cheer them up. I found that it made it harder to get my work done since I would distract myself from my illness with work and then get that reminder when I stepped out of my office. Again, without me asking, other co-workers came to my rescue. Older co-workers pulled the younger ones aside and told them that I didn’t need to be taking care of them, I needed to be taking care of me right now. I really appreciated this effort. On many days work was my respite from being cancer girl. I would immerse myself in the law and forget about, or at least be distracted from, thoughts about cancer and my next treatment. My body was often tired but my mind still needed stimulation, especially since I was dealing with chemo brain. I was having trouble with my memory, and at times I repeated myself.
I normally love multitasking and found that to be a challenge with chemo brain. For me, this was devastating. I just didn’t feel like me. The more projects I am working on, usually the happier I am. The effects of chemo are cumulative so by round three, there were days I felt like I was swimming circles in a murky pond. I had chemo on a Tuesday every three weeks followed by a shot to rebuild the white blood cells that the chemo wipes out. By Thursday of chemo week, the shot gave me flu-like symptoms and the chemo symptoms had kicked in. After my initial round of chemo, I came into the office the Friday after my chemo treatment. By early afternoon, my heart was racing and I felt flushed. I emailed a co-worker and then I lay down on my office floor. I called my doctor and was told to go home but I wasn’t in any shape to drive so two co-workers walked me to my car and one drove me home while the other followed in her car. Once in the house, I lay down and collapsed.
I found that getting ready for work, getting downtown and sitting in a desk chair, activities that I had long taken for granted, were just too exhausting. My brain was willing but my body was weak. After the next round of chemo, I worked from home. No heart palpitations, no passing out. Being able to put my feet up, having ready access to food and fluids enabled me to work without incident. I had a remote office desktop with all of my files, email access and voicemail that forwarded to my email, so that I could do virtually any work from home.
When I was stubborn, as I often am, work still supported me. Two weeks after my surgery, I flew to an annual work conference in Arizona. Work tried to discourage me from going and ended up approving the travel only if I agreed to follow my doctor’s orders and not lift more than five pounds and rest when I needed to rest. When I arrived at the Phoenix airport, there were no skycaps to gather my luggage. My lifting the luggage off the belt was out of the question, so I walked up to a very tall, imposing young man with many tattoos and piercings. “Sir, could you please lift my luggage off the conveyor belt for me? I recently had surgery.” Maybe no one had ever called him "Sir"; maybe his piercings and tattoos kept people from asking him for favors. He cocked his head to the side, then broke out in an impish grin and grabbed my luggage. I got the sense that I made his day.
As an attorney, a wife and a mother, I am used to taking care of people and things. It was hard at first asking for help, but I have come to see it as a gift. Attorneys are sometimes seen as arrogant or know-it-alls; I couldn’t be more vulnerable right now. I have reached out to my supervisors, co-workers and the Bar in general, and I have gotten help. I have been embraced by the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) Wellness Committee and used the resources of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP). Members of the Bar have taken me to lunch, visited me in my home and brought my family meals. They have sent cards and put me on prayer lists. I have experienced many random acts of kindness.
People have said that they don’t know what to do to help. They have asked me what I need. The fact is that I had never been through anything like this experience and I didn't know what I needed. People just began helping in the ways I described and it turns out that it was just what the doctor ordered.
MARY GRIFFIN is the State Social Security Administrator for the State of Tennessee Department of Treasury. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law and irreverently blogs about her experiences at Marygriffinnextadventure on her CaringBridge website.