Any idiot can face a crisis- it’s this day to day living that wears you out. Anton Chekov may or may not have said this. Someone said it.
Now I’m brave because this bit is tough.
When we are facing possible death and certain pain things are very simple. We focus only on the immediacy of the present crisis – the desire for life to continue and for pain to cease. We are focused and mindful of the present moment. Decisions tend to be easier to make. Paths are clearer.
Coming out the other end is a whole different kettle of fish. Trying to gather up the pieces of my old life and achieve some normality, keeping the black dog of depression at bay, dealing with boring old chronic pain and lymphedema. This is a different kind of difficult.
Readers of the blog will know that I was made redundant very shortly before my cancer diagnosis two years ago. For me there has been no gentle, phased return to my place of work amongst supportive colleagues. (Not that it’s always like this; returners have their own challenges.) Instead I have had to sell myself in a competitive jobs market. And I have done it. I have sold myself.
Applying for jobs in 2017 has been a very different experience from doing the same in 1997. That’s the last time I went through a proper selection process. In the olden days jobs were advertised in newspapers, you phoned up for an application form, if you were invited to interview your travelling expenses were reimbursed, you received proper instructions about public transport and parking, if you were unsuccessful at any stage you got a letter saying so. You were informed about timescales.
But now we are in May’s Britain and we jobseekers have to be put in our place. Nowadays it’s all done online and most companies don’t accept CVs so many tedious hours are spent typing the same stuff again and again into online forms, only to get to the final page where I am unable to submit my application because my ‘postcode is not recognised’ or some other irritating nonsense. And trying to contact these people to tell them that your postcode is legitimate is like wading through mud. Forget it.
The jobs are advertised as though they are precious gifts to be bestowed on very lucky, humble and grateful people. Do you want the ‘opportunity’ to be a ‘sandwich artist’, or to deliver food on your bicycle, to earn ‘up to’ £200 a week? (We all know what that ‘up to’ means, don’t we?) Would you be attracted to the ‘exciting night-time call-centre operative position’?
The standard of written English leaves a lot to be desired. Here are some of the gems:
This is not an exhausted list
The successful candidate should of completed a university education
Candidate’s must have they own car….
In one interview I had to sit on my inner English teacher and not correct the director’s persistent subject/verb errors: ‘Tell us about when you was working at The Institute of Financial Services.’
The main problem has been that I am not well enough yet to take on full-time work and part-time jobs can be pretty dire. Occasionally something semi-decent turns up; I recently got to second interview and in the final two for a job share in a management position but was pipped at the post by someone with twenty years’ experience ‘in recycling’ that was never mentioned as either necessary or desirable in the job and person specification, nor in the interviews. That’s the reason the director gave for my lack of success anyway. It may have been something totally different. It may have been the cancer.
Because that was always one of the first questions that I was asked at my interviews:
‘What have you been doing since October 2015?’
The law is fairly clear on this point: potential employers are not allowed to ask about health issues during interviews, nor am I obliged to tell them anything. If they offer me a job then they may ask and I must answer honestly but not until then.
But how was I supposed to answer? I could have said …
‘I’m not legally obliged to answer that question.’
Whilst true I hardly think that this would have got any interview off to a good start. So I decided to be open about the cancer. I’m not ashamed of being ill and I’m proud of my resolve to get back to normal so why wouldn’t I be honest? I resorted to the kind of language I absolutely LOATHE but in an interview situation clichés seemed appropriate. So I said…
‘I have been fighting and beating breast cancer. I have completed my treatment, feel better and ready to take on some part-time work.’
I would then smile and nod politely as the interviewers told me about their sister/cousin/aunt/friend/neighbour who had ‘beaten’ breast cancer and wasn’t dead yet. If they asked me how my own ‘journey’ had been I said that it had been ‘tough’ but I was happy to be moving on. I behaved well and tried to keep my weirdness and dark sense of humour shut tight in a box deep inside me. I thought about normal people and how they would react to these questions.
So now I have two jobs. I teach a two-hour class one morning a week and I work as a receptionist at a vets four long afternoons a week and alternate Saturday mornings.
Pulling together the dregs of my self-confidence and standing in front of a class for the first time in years was hard. But I did it. Go me! It’s a lovely group; we have fun and make progress. I’m looking forward to seeing them again on Tuesday.
The vets is an exercise in humility. I work very hard, I clean up poo and wee and blood, assuring the owners that it’s-fine-it-happens-all-the-time; I deal with lovely customers and not-so-nice-customers and very stressed and anxious customers; I make appointments, log microchips, register insurance, do surgery paperwork, anaesthesia consent forms, book people in, take money, set up care plans and monthly direct debits, record deliveries, deal with enquiries by phone, e-mail and in person; I dispense worm and flea stuff. I am told by my colleague that, as receptionists go, I’m a pretty poor specimen, that I am slow, ‘need to step it up a gear’, that ‘something ain’t working.’ It’s true that I get tired and sometimes my brain feels like it’s full of fluff. I forget stuff. I grit my teeth and bite my tongue (which is not easy). I tell myself that I am proud of myself for getting back into paid work. I consider myself an ambassador for job-seeking cancerettes and as such I do not complain about having to work late, about the constant pain in my upper body, about exhaustion. I am not used to being considered slow and stupid and it’s got to be good for my soul to have my pride knocked a bit.
So when the colleague tells me to stick my boobs out I laugh rather than run away crying. I tell her that I am better at being offensive than offended. Anyone who knows me will acknowledge the truth of this. When I am told that I will probably cry because of work pressure I reply that this is not going to happen.
What I don’t say out loud (because I’m pretending to be a normal person) is that I have survived a stage three, grade three cancer. I have looked death in the face. Why should I be scared of anything?
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
Psalm 118 vs 6
Normal life is tough but I’ll keep at it. The alternative is worse.
Pollyanna Moment: Firstly, excellent big sister marking my cancerversary by taking me away to a spa for the weekend. Drinking wine and falling into the outdoor pool fully clothed feel sort of normal. I have some great bruises.
Secondly, during a spa treatment a therapist touched my hard, flat chest. For two years my chest has been a source of fear, anxiety, pain and embarrassment; it’s had surgeries, portacath implant, drains, bandages, paraffin dressings. I massage the scars vigorously three times a day to stop them sticking to my ribs. My troublesome chest continues to be poked and prodded every few months by my consultant oncologist and breast surgeon. Yet this kind young therapist gently massaged oil into it as if it was just a normal part of my body. It felt nice. This made me cry at the time and still makes me cry.
Thirdly, working at a vets is interesting and I am full of admiration for my colleagues and the care they show for the animals. And there are puppies with soft pink tummies to stroke. I love puppies.
Needlecount: What needles? No needles here.