No fair

After almost six weeks of radiation, I’ve become friends with a couple other women who are crazy enough to do early, early morning radiation appointments.

One is a young mother, very petite. She’s also one of Dr. Hwang’s surgery patients. She lives in the East Bay, about 35-40 minutes away. She does the earliest appointment to avoid the morning traffic over the ever-congested Bay Bridge. She gets home in time to take care of her sons who are three and five. That sounds exhausting even when you’re not coping with cancer.

The other is a little bit older, and a little bit more stocky. She lives in the city and is fighting uterine cancer. I know less about her because she’s usually asking questions about everyone else. She brings me some Chinese coconut custard tarts one morning. My standard joke is that most Asian cuisine slips a stitch when it comes to dessert. Green beans pureed with coconut milk and sugar or gooey flavored rice jello squares are something, but not exactly what I would call a dessert. Chinese custard is the exception. I need to remind her to bring me the recipe.

The three of us exchange radiation pleasantries every morning. How are you feeling? How are the burns? Are you able to nap during the day? How’s your family? What are you doing this weekend? How many days do you have left?

Yesterday, the woman who makes Chinese custard looks stricken.

“What’s the matter?” we ask.

“I got fired from my job,” she says.


“I asked for more time on leave because I’m still going through radiation. They said that they couldn’t hold my position. I’ve been ‘medically separated’ from my unit.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, they say they’re going to help me try to find another job in the company when I’m well enough to work. But people tell me it’s likely that I won’t be able to find another full-time position. They’re hiring two people for one position, making them part-time so they don’t have to pay benefits.”

“What about your health insurance?”

“I guess I’ll have to go on COBRA.”

“What a nightmare.”

She nods. There seems to be nothing we can say that will make this better. Thinking about it later in the day, I realize I don’t know anything about this woman’s work situation or really much at all except that she’s trying to be brave and she makes excellent coconut custard. I don’t know how long she’s been with her company. I don’t know if she gets along with her supervisors. I don’t know how long she’s been on medical leave, what her exact medical situation is, whether her prognosis is good or iffy. I don’t know the economic constraints of her employer in this era of ever-shrinking budgets.

Yet asking someone who’s fighting cancer to deal with the hassle and economic strain of dealing with COBRA payments seems pretty inhumane. The uncertainty of cancer is bad enough without the uncertainty of unemployment. It just seems wrong that we let people fall through the cracks this way. It seems that our society should do better than this.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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3 Responses to No fair

  1. I write and edit for a website that serves family caregivers and you’d be amazed how many of these stories I hear all the time. People who ask for a leave for a few weeks and suddenly their position is “eliminated.” People who get their hours cut temporarily and then all of a sudden are told that because their hours are too low they’re losing their benefits. People who suddenly get dropped from their insurance halfway through cancer treatment. We don’t have a safety net in this country and expecting private employers to provide it is unrealistic.

    • leftbreast says:

      Melanie, You’re correct. I know this story is not the least bit unusual. And I agree that employers should not have to carry the expenses of employees who can no longer work. But the lack of safety net in this case is unconscionable.

  2. Alison Quoyeser says:

    Well said, Heather! I was at the infusion center yesterday for my fourth chemo. The lovely Crystal was my intake nurse as usual, and I told her about your blog and that she should look it up, especially since you appreciated her on it.

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