Gina Benedetti is a colon cancer survivor from Petaluma, California who was featured in the 2017 On the Rise by our partners at The Colon Club. She is a mother and an elementary school teacher. She shares her story on the challenges that came with working while fighting colon cancer.
I had my first colonoscopy, which diagnosed me with colon cancer, on a Monday. I immediately informed my principal and she told me to take care of myself and they would find a substitute for when I was out with surgery.
My final day of teaching for that year was Wednesday, two days after my initial diagnosis. I went into work to tie up loose ends and help my substitute. I didn’t let on to my students I would be out for six weeks. It would’ve been too hard for me. My principal took care of that with a letter to the parents explaining the situation. Bless her heart.
The following Wednesday, I had my surgery. I waited to hear from pathology whether I needed chemo. Ten very long days later my surgeon called and said that the cancer was found in 9/27 lymph nodes so I needed a port and to begin chemo.
When I told my principal, she reassured me my class was taken care of and the substitute could handle it for the remainder of the year. Because I was teaching first grade, I was fearful for the risk of infection if I continued to teach. I couldn’t have disrupted the schedule and had a substitute come every other week for a few days, IF I was feeling well enough to teach when I wasn’t receiving chemo.
Now that I look back, there would’ve been no way I could’ve taught during treatment. The side effects were too much to handle just laying on my couch at home! I’m very thankful that my principal took control of the situation and my coworkers helped out.
My coworkers donated their sick days so that I would be paid until the end of the school year.
I’m glad I stepped back and fortunate for the support of my boss and co-workers.
Slowly Rejoining the Workforce
The school year for the following year began as I was finishing up chemo. I decided to do a “job share” that year, which means you share your classroom with another teacher. You split up the days of the week and work part-time. My co-teacher worked full weeks when I had chemo.
I had a very hard time with (still do) with my memory, concentration and organization. Even since completing treatment, this is a struggle. As I rejoined the workforce, I found that I didn’t have the patience I had before. I often wondered if I should find another career. I became depressed and anxious.
I was “thrown” back into a life I didn’t know how to navigate anymore. I wasn’t the same person, but everyone expected me to pick up where I left off. All the help, phone calls and support dwindled rapidly once my treatment ended. That, along with working and caring for a toddler, was a lot to handle.
I’m glad I worked part-time when I completed treatment so I could handle this transition into the “new normal,” – which has been the hardest part of this cancer journey so far.
Jumping Back Into Full-Time
After going part-time and evaluating what I needed, I decided it was best for me to continue teaching and go back to a full-time position. I needed to continue working in my passion and I missed the classroom. I now teach 4th grade, and it’s been a good thing for me.
I’m not quite two years out from completing treatment. It hasn’t been easy. I have to write everything down and students constantly remind me of things. It has gotten easier as the time goes on, but I am still struggling.
I do spend more time nurturing my students and really caring about their emotional needs, more so than before cancer. I feel like it made my heart bigger so I have a huge amount of empathy for my students.
I cherish my job and my students more now than I did before cancer.
I am very open and honest about my cancer with my students and their parents. My co-workers have continued to be a support to me. I’m grateful for the team around me who encouraged me to step back from work when I needed it, and who helped me step back into work when I was ready.
Balancing CRC and Employment Webinar
Working after a cancer diagnosis comes with many unexpected challenges. These challenges could include talking to your colleagues about your diagnosis, taking time off from work or reducing work hours, financial stressors, and more.
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