My first job out of college was as an assistant account executive in the sports and entertainment division of a public relations firm in Manhattan. Our clients were big names in sports: Turner sports, ProPlayer, The NFL Quarterback Club, The V Foundation for Cancer Research, among others. Our division was run by a quartet of handsome men nearly ten years my senior. I was 20 years old and fresh off the boat; sprung from my insular Orthodox Jewish community of Queens, I was young, naïve and excited by the high-pressure, yet glamorous atmosphere.
A month into the job, one of my supervisors was diagnosed with testicular cancer. We hadn’t worked together that much at that point, but I remember feeling fear and worry for him. I didn’t know what to do to help, so I planted a tree in his honor somewhere in the North of Israel and sent the certificate to his home.
At some point during his chemotherapy treatments, he came to visit the office and I barely recognized him. A thin man to begin with, he was gaunt and pale, and wore a bandana underneath his hat to cover his baldhead. But he still had that same face splitting grin and mischievous sparkle in his eye. We didn’t spend much time talking during that brief visit, but I remember feeling such hope that he was going to beat the cancer and be back in the office in no time.
What seemed like a year later, he returned to work. He looked the same, but different; his hair had grown back, and he had put on some of the weight lost during chemo, but there was just a slight stoop in his shoulders. Like a hand was still pressing down his back and he didn’t have the strength to throw it off and stand tall. I’m sure we welcomed him back with a toast or a party, although 20 years later, I can’t remember that detail.
In no time at all, we got back into the pre-cancer rhythm that had been in the office prior to his illness. While I can’t remember which client triggered the pressure, I do remember feeling extremely startled when I heard him yelling from his office. Someone was getting chewed out for something, and then it trickled down to members of the junior staff. My co-worker and I weren’t spared his wrath, and I remember going across the street to Park Avenue Country Club after hours to lick my wounds.
Over kamikaze shots and bottles of Coronas with limes, I remarked that he clearly didn’t learn anything from his cancer. My co-workers nodded in agreement and we continued to drink away a lousy day in the office.
Fast forward to my own cancer experience, and it has been three weeks since I received the incredible news: no evidence of disease. Remission. I went from cancer patient to cancer survivor in seconds. The news took days to sink in, but I quickly reverted back to pre-cancer mode. I ramped back up at work, taking on more assignments and committing to increased hours. We stopped getting meals from our wonderful community and I got back behind the wheel to do school pick up and after school activity runs.
One afternoon, I found myself swearing at a woman who cut me off with all three kids in the back seat of my car, and then later I shouted at the kids for not cleaning up the toys from the living room floor, or doing their homework, or taking a shower, etc. It was just a brief glance from my daughter that transported me back to that day in the bar. To when I muttered those word “he didn’t learn anything from his cancer.” It was the look of utter disappointment.
Never judge a man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.
There are great expectations for cancer survivors, a pre-conceived notion that we become different people. That we will adopt a Zen like demeanor and have incredible insights on how to continue living life. Perhaps that happens to some cancer survivors, but it didn’t happen to me.
It didn’t feel good disappointing my daughter and it never feels good to yell at my children. But I strived to be a better mommy before my diagnosis, and I’m going to continue trying to be a better mom as a cancer survivor, too.