Post Treatment Jitters: Back to Work

It has been quite some time since I have posted a blog. Me, five years ago, would have apologized for that. But I won’t do that today. Instead, I say, thank you for your patience. Have you ever sat in your home, or in your car and watched or listened to the news and thought to yourself, ‘Man, (insert any God) is really going to teach us a lesson one day because we are NOT doing things right’. Whether it be mother nature for the way we treat our planet, or the God we choose to worship for how we treat animals, each other and ourselves, somebody or something is going to teach us a lesson one day. It sort of feels like that’s what has been happening over the last year and a half. My family and I started off strong, board games and puzzles and art projects. Sometime around Christmas 2020 that changed. It just got too hard and Mommy ran out of steam. It has been a slow assent back to happiness, gratitude and peace. That is what I needed to focus on – reminding myself over and over again what we truly have to live for. Reminding myself that even as the world crashed down around us, there was much to be thankful for. So here we are, a few weeks of actually living our privileged life and hugging vaccinated people we love under our belts as the fourth wave descents upon us. This time, the kids, immunocompromised and unvaccinated people are the targeted. As the mother of two children under twelve years old, we are getting ready to batten down the hatches and ride the next storm out. But first, as inspiration flows back through my veins, I need to share with you some thoughts I had about my return to work which happened last September and what I’ve learned from the experience. There is definitely a lot on this topic that I could write about. Let me know in the comments if you would like to read more on return to work. Enjoy!

At the point, during my cancer treatment, that we were confident I would not imminently die, I began to feel that my diagnosis had been my personal wake up call. The God that I had spent the better part of my life rejecting, had put a serious smackdown on me as if to say, ‘You can’t live like this anymore. Get your shit together or you’re done for’. I did not take this message lightly. In fact, I spent the following three years working hard at living a healthier life (check out any of my previous articles for more on the earlier part of my journey by clicking here). Getting on track looks different for everyone. The reality is, I had managed to succeed in some areas of my life. I had a great job and was well respected in my industry but I had not honored my body or my mental health over the years. Let’s be honest, my generations parents didn’t spend time encouraging us to get in touch with our feelings or set boundaries with others. We were the generation of do what you’re told. We were told to get a good education, and if you are a woman, then you were told to find a good husband; live comfortably and therefore happily. Most of my life I didn’t sleep enough, eat well enough, exercise consistently enough…and I had spent the better part of my thirties trying to get my conviction to catch up to the ease with which I was able to use my voice. Just because I had a healthy set of vocal cords and I am witty when I’m angry, doesn’t mean I was able to use it constructively or with conviction. I will be the first to admit that this has not been a simple road. I made sure, that once my strength had returned, to use the time that I was in treatment, incapable of both parenting well or working at all, to my full advantage. Yes, there were days I allowed myself to just feel sorry for myself (and that’s really important because I did have a former life to grieve) but I spent far more days validating the emotions that made me feel sorry for myself. I learned to use it to fuel my growth. To be good to myself, in mind and body.

This looked like learning new sleep techniques to avoid more medications and to ensure my body had the time it needed to heal at night. It looked like eliminating or reducing processed foods and alcohol from my diet and including more water, vegetables and supplements. It looked like stress management, which is a vast landscape. It looked like telling myself I had done something silly, like put the sugar in the fridge or the milk in the cupboard, instead of telling myself I am silly. It looked like allowing myself to slow down when exercising because much as I disliked it, my body just wasn’t as strong as it used it be. It looked like me smiling more often for no good reason at all, even though I knew the reasons I had to smile were plentiful. I had learned that happiness is a choice and gratitude is everywhere around us, ripe for the picking because it isn’t about what we have or don’t have, it’s about how we perceive all things. It’s about accepting that everyday isn’t going to be awesome and that’s ok because life is unpredictable and it’s better to live in the moment than try to control the future.

You see, these things don’t happen over night. And when life is happening in real time, it can be really really hard to shift our look inward on life. Doing so requires self-awareness, courage and vulnerability. Especially if it’s the first time we’ve ever really allowed ourselves to be vulnerable – to take a deeper look at ourselves. Experiencing pain we’ve been protecting ourselves from for years. But when stuck at home, on cancer treatment and the rest of the world is moving about their daily lives and we are forced to move slower than we have since learning how to walk, time moves differently and it’s significantly easier to adjust our focus, chemo fog not withstanding. I will always be grateful for that time I had to work on myself.

When I transitioned back to work in September 2020, I was a little shaky in my confidence. After a few months of total panic, I put on a brave face and did what needed to be done. I told myself that the personal work I had done could not be undone by the first person who attacked me for something at work. Yet, I was afraid. I had become consciously aware that attacking is what people who are protecting themselves do. People attack to protect the damaged little kid inside of themselves. I knew because I used to be one of those people. I didn’t want to be again.

After nearly three years of being away, I did not go back to the same job I had. It fact, the same job did not even exist anymore. I was placed within a different team. A familiar team and I was welcomed with wide open arms, even if through Microsoft Teams. I didn’t generally have much conflict with people in my career but like anyone else, there were certainly a handful. I did not like conflict, though if I felt attacked, my alarm bells would ring and my nerves would hum. As my transition back to work went on, something totally incredible happened. Some of the people I had previously experienced conflict with became friends, allies in business and supporters in life’s journey. Some remained at arms length and that is ok too because what I also realized is that not everyone is going to be your ally. What’s more, my value is not based on the validation of others so I no longer felt threatened by those I didn’t mesh with. Some who I had previously had no relationship with at all shared that they had followed me through this very blog or social media, silently cheering me on from a far. I was floored, humbled, honored. I turned my curiosity inward. I spent time assessing why I thought these people were reacting differently towards me. We often hear of people who go through treatment and re-enter the workforce choosing not to share anything at all about their journey for fear of being treated differently. Many worry that their experience will make people think they are weak, incapable of managing, will need to be coddled. Many of my co-workers were aware of what I had been through to some degree, were they treating me differently because I had been sick?

As a side note, I’d like to address the survivors who feel they need to bottle up this part of themselves. My friends, that is bullshit. You survived one of the worst experiences any human could ever experience and you are still here, still contributing, still growing. You are a goddamn warrior and you deserve to hold your head high no matter what you decide to share. Shine on!

Back to the story, it didn’t feel like I was being coddled or treated delicately. By the vast majority, I was treated no differently; with consideration and respect. I made sure when I returned not to accept offers of help unless I really needed it because I, too, am a goddamn warrior and I insisted on pulling my own weight. And in the moments I stumbled during my transition back, I was sure to ask for support. In those few relationships that were changing, I was being treated with kindness that had not previously exist. As I explored my thoughts and feelings about this, I noticed the shift that had taken place in me. I observed that, rather than feeling and acting like I had all the answers, as I had always thought was required of me, I accepted humbly that I, in fact, did not have all the answers. And that is ok. Ironically, after accepting this fact, I felt self-assured. Confident in myself. I had been so busy worrying myself over how others would respond to me in the work environment that I had not considered how MY changed behaviour might impact THEM.

I had a conversation with a close friend soon after restarting work. He asked me, ‘How are things going?’

‘Really good. Things are different. Someone who I never used to get along with called me and asked for advice. It totally blew me away!’.

He said, ‘What’s different?’

I said, ‘I think it’s me. I think I show up differently’.

He said, ‘Is it like, I’m just going to do me and f*ck everyone else?

I said, ‘Actually no. That’s what it used to be like and I think that’s what used to cause the conflict. Now it’s like, I’m just going to be over here and do me. And when the opportunity presents itself, I’m going to cheer for you too because it doesn’t cost me anything to be kind and encouraging‘.

I had achieved what I had set out to accomplish during the entire decade before this one; my conviction. My demeanor, my values, my self-confidence had caught up with my voice. I didn’t need to scream and shout. I didn’t need to strong arm anyone. I didn’t need to argue or come up with sharp witty responses when I felt attacked because I no longer felt the need to prove myself capable. I know that I am and that is good enough for me. In reflection, I realized that maybe in some situations, I had never attacked in the first place. Maybe it was just my amped parasympathetic nervous system always waiting for the next catastrophe. Instead, I felt calmness within. The years of cortisol and adrenaline rushing through my veins had finally subsided and gave way to clearer, more reasonable thought processes. My creativity soared. I had learned and practiced that I can and will empathize with the experience of others while I hold my boundaries and protect my energy too. I no longer need ego because I have learned to love myself. I am a worthy human with or without the validation of others. In the way that we feel the aura of others, mine now says, ‘I am not your enemy. Let’s figure this out together’, and experiencing the reaction of others feels great. It has been an incredible journey of hard work, grueling at times, and manifestation of positivity and peace. Living through the fruits of my labor makes me want to work that much harder. Grow that much more. And best of all, I can do these things feeling confident with where I am today and hopeful for where I will be tomorrow, all while showing up in the world in an impactful way which lifts others up.

It feels like a different kind of success. I have been incredibly fortunate to step back into my career after so long, feeling as though I barely missed a beat. In part thanks to having an incredible employer and in part for the efforts I took leading up to my return. And for all of the trepidation in the months prior to returning, I may never truly have understood just how impactful my personal evolution has been without returning. Not only to me but to those around me also. While I would not wish the circumstances of my wake up call on anyone, I can humbly say that going through it has forced me to become a better employee, and more importantly, a better human, and I am eternally grateful for that.

Until next time, be safe and be well. We’ve got this!

Published by Michelle Burleigh

Michelle is a highly driven, ambitious woman who gratefully possesses a love of learning and the vulnerability to share how those teachings influence her vibrating higher every day. As a mother of two incredible young girls, a wife, and a career professional, she has not allowed her December 2017 diagnosis of Acute Leukemia stop her from making and achieving goals. She felt compelled to start SoYou'veGotCancer.ca to help people and their loved ones feel more empowered and informed throughout their own journey of self-love and self-advocacy.

2 thoughts on “Post Treatment Jitters: Back to Work

  1. Wonderful observations from a truly remarkable person. In the Celestine Prophesy, the author talks about there being two types of people – ones that sap your energy and others that energize you. You truly carry that positive vibe everywhere you go. I for one have felt that vibe first hand and think the world is a better place because you’ve put yourself out there – thank you. Oh and I love this article!

    Liked by 1 person

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