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.