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Helping Laura Heal

Helping Laura Heal

When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the last thing I wanted was to publicize my illness. While I wanted to tell friends and colleagues because I needed their support and understanding, I had no desire to be a spokesperson for those who fight this terrible illness.

Still, in the end, I agreed to have a reporter tell my story in a national magazine, Family Circle. Why? Because I hoped that my experience would show people and the organizations with which they work how to help a person with cancer. Westminster College as an institution, and the people I worked with as individuals, were incredibly compassionate, caring, and supportive. When people I knew read this story, they were not surprised that I survived—the people who know me know I can be very tough and very persistent when I need to be—but they were shocked to see how much the college did for me during my illness.

As Executive Director of Communications, I often describe Westminster as a “community.” I want you to know that isn’t just some PR phrase. It is a reality. And it is to make that point that I share my story with you.

On the morning of December 8, 2004, I went to my gynecologist for what I hoped would be an uneventful exam. As a busy 45-year-old working wife and mother, I barely had time to see a doctor, but a week earlier I’d felt a small lump in my abdomen and decided to get it checked. I hoped it was something benign, but seeing my doctor’s expression turn serious during my pelvic exam, I began to worry.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I’m not going to pull any punches,” she said.
“This could be serious.”

I took a deep breath. “If you were a betting person,”
I asked, “would you bet it was cancer?”

“Yes,” she said. “I would.”

I sat on the examining table in my paper robe, crying. My doctor hugged me. “I’m glad you came in,” she said.

She sent me for a CT scan and X-rays. As I sat in the waiting room, I made two calls. First I called my office at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, where I am the executive director of communications, to say I wouldn’t be in that day. Then I called my husband, Bob, who runs a painting business out of our home in Park City, Utah.

Of course, he wanted to come be with me, but I knew that if he did, I’d fall apart, and I didn’t want that. Someone also had to pick up our daughters, Jessica, 12, and Kelly, 8, from school. “It’s O.K.,” I said. “Let’s wait until we know what we’re dealing with.”

My gynecologist phoned me that afternoon with the test results: advanced ovarian cancer. For a moment, time seemed to stop. I remember thinking, This can’t be happening. I have two little girls! I can’t die!

That was on a Wednesday. My doctor had arranged for me to meet with a surgeon on Monday. Somehow Bob and I had to manage until then. Although it might seem strange, I went to work on Thursday and Friday as usual. I’m a creature of routine, and I’ve always taken pride in my work.
On Friday Bob and I told the girls I had a tumor in my tummy that had to be removed and that we’d know more after the surgery. Jessica didn’t say much. She deals with things that frighten her by listening and watching. Kelly needs to talk, and she had a wonderful comment. She said she was just glad I had something that could be treated and not an incurable disease such as Alzheimer’s.

That Sunday Bob and I had the four people on my staff and their families over for a holiday party. I had started my job only six months earlier, and most of my staff was new too. I had planned the party to help us get to know one another, but my diagnosis left me dazed. Fortunately, Bob is a wonderful cook and a very gregarious person, so he was able to keep the party going with little help from me.

On Monday, December 13, we met with Andrew Soisson, M.D., a specialist in gynecological cancers. His warm manner put us instantly at ease. He wanted to schedule the surgery for the following week, but I convinced him to do it sooner, in two days. That gave me only the next day to make all the necessary arrangements at work.

Breaking bad news to good people

As soon as I got to the office the next morning, I asked for a brief meeting with my boss, Michael Bassis, the president of the college. I got right to the point. “I’ve been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and I’m going in for surgery tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll be out for a couple of weeks, and I don’t know what will happen after that.” For a moment Michael looked stunned. Then he said the most wonderful thing: “We’re a small, private college, Laura. That means we have a lot of flexibility. We’ll support you in any way we can.”

We went from there to a meeting of the senior staff, but I wasn’t able to concentrate. As the meeting ended, Michael asked if anyone wanted to say anything. I decided to tell everyone what I had told him. I didn’t see any reason to hide the facts, and I did not want people wondering and guessing what was going on.

I knew I worked with wonderful people, but I was still surprised by the outpouring of concern. Many looked overwhelmed. My colleague and friend Nancy Michalko, whom I had already told, announced, “Laura will beat this.” As we all filed out of the room, a number of people gave me a hug or squeezed my arm. I had no idea such small gestures could mean so much.

The people on my staff were even more stunned by the news, because I had given them no indication that anything was wrong at the holiday party. I apologized for surprising them and explained that I hadn’t been ready to talk about it then but I was now. They told me not to worry about anything except getting well. They’d take care of everything while I was out. “You’re going to come through this,” they said over and over. “We know you will.” They seemed so certain that I started believing it too.

Both my girls were born by cesarean section, and I imagined this surgery would be like that: a small incision, a quick procedure and a short hospital stay. I was wrong. Dr. Soisson had to remove all my reproductive organs, parts of my colon and diaphragm, and some of the lining of my stomach. The good news was that he saved my bladder and the cancer hadn’t yet spread to my liver, lungs or lymph nodes. He estimated that I had a 50 to 60 percent chance of making a total recovery.

I was in the hospital for nine days. During that time almost everyone I work with came to see me, including my boss. My friend Nancy walked me up and down the halls to help me build my strength. Diane Forster-Burke, a member of the college’s nursing school faculty, gave me a massage. For all these people to take time to visit me during the busy holiday season made me feel cared about not just as a co-worker but as a person.

I went home on December 23 to celebrate Christmas with my family and spent the next two weeks recuperating before my first chemotherapy treatment on Thursday, January 13. I had already decided to return to work the next Wednesday. Bob thought I was rushing it, but I felt it would be good for me. Staying home gave me too much time to worry and feel sorry for myself. Plus, we agreed that the sooner we got our family life back to normal, the better it would be for the girls.

I had been told that my six chemo treatments, spaced about three weeks apart, would take a toll on me, so I had arranged with my boss to work half days my first week back. I also asked permission to take a day off after a treatment if I needed it and to leave work early if I felt really tired. Michael couldn’t have been nicer. “Your health comes first,” he said. Just knowing I had that leeway was a comfort.

Nancy drove me to work until I got stronger. When we arrived at the office my first morning back, I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome I received. Though I shouldn’t have—I’d been told chemo would weaken my immune system, leaving me vulnerable to infections—I let myself be hugged again and again. I had also been told my long, thick, red hair would fall out, so I had cut it to pageboy length before returning to work. People complimented me on my new hairstyle and told me how good I looked. When I finally settled down to work, that felt good too.

The healing power of workplace support

I didn’t realize how much chemo would take out of me. Each treatment left me more drained. I didn’t have nausea, but I did have terrible “chemo brain.” I felt foggy, and that bothered me because I like to be on top of things. But my co-workers were very understanding.

A week later my hair started coming out in clumps and I had to cut it off and start wearing a wig. I felt self-conscious at first, but Bob Seltzer, special assistant to the president, helped me get past that. “Laura, really,” he teased. “That’s two hairstyles in two weeks. Could you stop? I can’t keep up!” We laughed, and that broke the tension.

The worst part was the intestinal side effects from chemo. Sometimes I’d be constipated. Other times I’d be hit by sudden diarrhea. There were some close calls, but my co-workers took it all in stride with good humor.

I wasn’t always as good at keeping my sense of humor. The side effects of chemo sometimes got to me, especially when I felt they kept me from doing my job. I tried to leave work by 4 p.m. each day to avoid overtaxing myself, but I seldom did. I was always trying to finish one more task and often came home tired and cranky. Still, I think my family felt that returning to work was the right choice for me. Being a contributing member of a team at home and at the office helped me maintain my self-esteem and kept me from feeling like a victim. I felt I was fitting the cancer into my life instead of shaping my life around it. I didn’t let it take over. I had my last chemo treatment on Wednesday, May 25. The next week my staff gave me a party. It was a simple celebration—just the five of us sharing a cake—but it meant the world to me to know they shared my joy at having made it that far.

There’s no knowing what the future will bring. But for now I’m cancer free, I feel strong and healthy, and I’m enjoying my life. I feel lucky, really. We all know how important family and friends are in difficult times. But we don’t hear as much about how important workplace support can be, especially to women like me who have always combined family and career. I truly believe that having such a great job to go to every day helped me get through my treatments. Working with such caring people was a blessing. I will be grateful to them for the
rest of my life.