Reflections on Dealing with a Life-Threatening Illness During Postdoc
“Sometimes when you hear hoof beats it actually is a zebra.”
By Andrew Voyiadjis
It all started with a cough.
Like any other day, I sat at my office hunched over my keyboard working when I felt an annoying tickle in my throat and I started to cough. I heard the voice of my co-worker over my shoulder, “You should get that checked out.” I didn’t think too much of it so I continued to work. And really, who has the time to think about being sick, especially when you’re spending half your day figuring out how to fix your research and the other half stressing over how much further along you should be?
In most cases, a physician examining me would agree that my cough, given my health record and circumstances, was not life threatening. I’m sure some would even cite the old saying, “when you hear hoof beats, think of horses not zebras,” which means first consider the common ailment before the rare diagnosis. But just in case I decided to get a quick check-up, which slowly started to turned into a grueling 6-month fight against a life threatening illness.
In the next couple of weeks I was uncertain and scared about what was wrong with me. After many tests it was determined that a tumor was pushing on my windpipe that was causing me to cough. When my doctor told me the news I freaked out. I mean, what 31-year-old goes into a doctor’s office with a cough and leaves thinking they may have cancer! No one thinks they are going to be that zebra. I certainly didn’t. Dealing with this while a postdoc was difficult, to say the least, and life changing, but I have grown so much from it.
As you can expect, after hearing the news I had a million thoughts… “What does this mean? How could this be happening to me… This doesn’t make any sense I feel completely fine…” These thoughts circled over and over in my head making me feel dizzy. The only thing I could do to get a grip was look in the mirror and remind myself that this really is happening to me!
On top of all these questions, I was soon going to learn about the other problems cancer patients have to deal with – drug side effects, managing relationships, trying to keep up with work responsibilities, etc… The combination of everything is so daunting that if someone told me I would have to deal with them before I went through them, I would have probably had a nervous breakdown, crawled into a hole, and prayed that all my worries would disappear. Thankfully I found ways of coping.
The most important was finding out what makes me happy and doing it. This had never been more crucial to live day after day than at this point in my life. For me, it was watching a lot of comedy like Dave Chappell and exercising. Yes, exercising! Reminding myself that just because I was sick didn’t mean that I was dead. And so when I could exercise, I did. It helped reduce stress and release those lovely endorphins. Every little bit helped.
As I started to organize my thoughts more questions started to come up, the most important of which was what type of cancer do I have and can it be beat? This was when the analytic part of my brain started to kick in and my problem solving skills and logic, as with most people, would provide some solace from my first paralyzing feeling. If all these emotions wreaking havoc in my head weren’t enough there were also those thoughts of “how am I going to pay for this…,” “when should I tell my boss…”, and “is he going to want to keep me on once he knows…” I couldn’t also help but think of my research that I’ve worked so hard on and is as much a part of me as this cancer.
Fortunately I have a very considerate supervisor who not only allowed me to get my things in order after my surgery and treatment, but also let me continue my work from home, because my work is largely computer based. Working from home was a blessing since I wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of infection from contact with others on my commute, let alone building my strength, which I didn’t have much of after many of my treatments. I can’t say enough about how important and helpful it was that my supervisor was so supportive during this whole process.
I also tried to do my part and stayed in contact with him at least once a month to not only give updates on my medical condition, but also inform him on my research progress. This was also a good time to keep everyone in the lab up to date with my condition. The love and support I felt from my lab was unlike anything I had ever felt and it really raised my spirits. That, in and of itself, was a great reason to share my experience with my labmates.
Additionally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get in touch with the benefits program. Garnett-Powers & Associates were amazing in helping me navigate through confusing insurance protocols for changing treatments. In particular, Tom Garnett, the president of the company, personally helped me figure out what I needed to do to get proton therapy. This was because Aetna didn’t think it would make any difference if I received radiation instead of proton therapy, even though all my doctors said proton was my best option to limit the amount of radiation hitting my vital organs. The key to expediting the process was setting up a peer-to-peer review with doctors from Aetna and UPenn. I quickly learned after this that sometimes policy has a hard time catching up with technology, so make sure to do your research and get help from those who can modify policy.
Furthermore, don’t forget that you are the patient and being kind and quick with the doctor without addressing all your own concerns does not guarantee better care. Quite the contrary if your concerns are not taken into account. So ask the hard questions. Because you don’t want any regrets, you want to know your options, and the more secure and in control you feel the less stress you will have.
Ultimately, I’m grateful to everyone who helped no matter if it was just thinking about me or stopping by my apartment to play Dr. Mario on my Wii or drop off some more comedy DVDs. For any of my fellow postdocs who may be going through a difficult medical situation of their own, I want to advise that you should be ready to answer some “gut check” questions like “Do you have a living will and if not do you want one.” Everything aside, I know that I was fortunate to quickly set up an appointment with a specialist, be admitted into HUP that same day, and then on an operating table the next day, but I still felt like I was on a dizzying carnival ride. So if you are going through tough medical problems now, just hold on for the ride and keep moving forward because things will get better.
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