How Not to Look Like a Cancer Patient at Work – guest post

Here is an insightful and humorous piece.  Dawn Morris, a stage 3 breast cancer survivor, writes an interestingly designed blog: reality from here (cancer’s leftovers) |

How Not to Look Like a Cancer Patient at Work

One fine evening at the local watering hole with the Offsite Strategy Group, I revealed my secret former cancer patient identity to an astonished audience. These guys had worked with me for five years and had no clue of what I’d been through. They were also engineers so I know they’re easily smarter than I am. Therefore, I was nearly as surprised to hear that my subterfuge had worked as they were to learn that I had been through the cancer mill under their very noses. How did I manage to pull this off? Have a seat…

Tip #1: Occupy a relatively secluded cubicle. I was a bit of the “Director’s Pet” at the time (bless her), and so I was sitting a paperweight’s throw from her double-wide executive cube. This was ideal for hiding out from the general employee population, as they tended to avoid cluttering up the boss’ immediate territory. The point is that you don’t have to try to convince your co-workers that your life’s just peachy if they’re not in your face.

Tip #2: Work on a solo project. I was slowly converting our old web design into the newly sanctioned Intranet template, and so was not forced to meet or work directly with anyone else. I had been taking meeting minutes and action items for a couple of IT councils before my adventures in cancer began, but my supervisor reassigned the duty to another employee indefinitely. This was great news, as those meetings started very early and were not exactly easy to transcribe.

Tip #3: Hide your hairlessness. To create the most lifelike effect, I resorted to wearing a wig to work. It was very nice, and played a large role in keeping my condition under wraps. However, by 12:30 p.m. I was ready to rip that thing off my head and send it sailing across the cubicletops. By 1 p.m. I could think of nothing else but that hairy vice squeezing my head. I guess chemo makes your scalp sensitive to pressure, because that wig was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever worn. It itched, it made me sweat underneath, and it gave me a headache. I did finally order a sort of Velcro-fastened gel strip to protect my scalp from direct contact with that instrument of head torture. I highly recommend buying one of these if you’re going to wear a “rug” while bald.

My chemo menu did a number on ALL of my body hair. By Easter of 2004, two months after my chemo sessions had ended, I had no eyebrows or eyelashes. To deal with this weirdness, I purchased the first eyeliner I’d ever owned, and dug up an old eyebrow pencil. Every morning for about three months, I drew my face back on with these implements. On a side note, I still use the eyebrow pencil nine years later because my brows never grew back entirely. They’re very sparse, but I love blowing money on cheap drugstore beauty products, so I can deal.

Tip #4: Cover the gray. Not hair — bald, remember? The gray I’m referring to is the poisoned chemo pallor that robbed my skin of its former rosiness, leaving me with a complexion the color of powdered cement. It’s interesting what mud-colored lips do to your favorite lipstick. Just…wrong. Especially with the pinkish colors I preferred at the time. I found that very lightly applied orange-reds gave the closest approximation of healthy lips. For the rest of my cadaverous face, I pulled out some old bronzing powder and found that I looked remarkably lifelike after applying some pretty much everywhere, even on my neck. Pink blush just made my face look dirty at this point. That bronzer was a lifesaver. Or, rather, it saved me from looking like the living dead.

Tip #5: Keep your emotional monsoons to yourself. My health insurance came from my job (rather than my husband’s), and I was terrified of losing it. So, since I was determined to continue working part-time through the merry hell that is modern cancer treatment, I decided that it would be easiest for me to handle if no one knew about my situation. And so all of my apprehensions, aggravations, and increasing exhaustion were hidden away while I was on the job. I cried on no one’s shoulder, and no one knew of the gallons of tears I blinked back.

And that’s how I did it. It’s been nearly ten years now, and I remember it all, as the cliché goes, like yesterday. Fortunately, I don’t really dwell often on my experiences with cancer and its somewhat barbaric (if effective) treatment. I have plenty with which to keep myself distracted — college courses, work, family, cats, computer gaming. And writing my memoirs when I feel like having a good wallow in it all for old times’ sake. Thanks for reading.

from: reality from here (cancer’s leftovers) |


About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.

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