September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, and I am going to speak to our women's leadership group at work on Sept. 27. Although I have written about my cancer experience on this blog and will tell anybody my saga one-on-one, I've never given a speech on the topic. I've been a speechwriter throughout my career, and public speaking was my extracurricular activity in both high school and college, so that part doesn't scare me.
What scares me is this crazy idea I have that God forgot I was supposed to die, and now I'm like, "Hey! God! I'm over here!" Since I was first diagnosed in 1999, I thought it would be good to help educate women about ovarian cancer if I survived long enough to tell the story. But it seemed like all the good spokespeople died, so I wanted to wait until it was safe to go in the water.
First I said, well, I won't talk about it until I've gone five years cancer-free. Then I hit the five-year mark and said, well, I'd better not say anything until I've gone 10 years. Then I hit the 10-year mark and said, so far, so good, why speak up at all? Here I am in year 14, and it's time to give back. I'll take my chances with God.
I've been thinking about what I will say in my speech, which will only be 20 minutes or so. There's one story I share occasionally to remind colleagues why it's important to find a way to like the people you work with. As we all know, some people are not easy to like, and managing relationships in the workplace can be the hardest part of the job.
We were living in Charleston, S.C. I had a great job, but there were no opportunities for me to advance out in the hinterlands. The company was headquartered in Columbia, about 100 miles inland, so I knew I would eventually have to move to get ahead.
A fast-talking recovering lawyer I had been working with on a special project was appointed head of a new business area, and he told me my career would take off like a rocket if I came to Columbia and worked for him. He had deep roots in the town and in the company, and I fell for it. We call that move in our house, "The Big Mistake." The job turned out to be a snoozer, and we bought a fixer-upper we hated in a neighbhood named after my boss's ancestors. He said this was where we needed to be.
This start-up business area was being populated by people he hand-picked from all over the company. I was in a work group with three other women. Mary and Charlene were my age -- 40s -- they'd both been with the company a long time, and this was their first job outside of what we used to call the secretarial field. Sandee was fresh out of college.
The building was new, and the furnishings were arriving daily. We all had our own cubes with a desk and chair, but extra seating had yet to arrive. The work at first was rather undefined, and the three of them would sit on the floor in each other's cubes and chat. I decided right away I would have nothing to do with them. Even after the furniture came and we all started doing real work, I continued to tune them out. I did not need these three women to do my job.
I'd been there a few months, and it was time for my performance review. The boss said I was doing great work, but he noticed I didn't interact with the other three women in my workgroup. I was absolutely stunned! I explained how I found their behavior less than professional, and I focused on my work instead. He said fine, but finding a way to connect with your co-workers is part of the job, too.
I remember being so utterly pissed. I'd worked hard in my career, and now this was going to drag me down? It hadn't occurred to me until then that they didn't like me any better than I liked them. I made a decision to win them over. I can't say I reached this decision as a result of searching my soul or anything profound like that. I just wasn't going to let anything get in the way of my career. You want me to be friends with them, damn it, I will be friends.
We started to talk. I made it my mission to find out who they were as people. I only did this because I thought I had to ... not because I truly cared. But somewhere in the process, I started to care. I learned that they were real people with real fears, and this gig wasn't working out like they thought it would, either.
At first I truly thought it was a waste of time to talk with them when we should be working, but I noticed a change. We started to build trust and actually discovered that we did need each other to do our best work. We learned to collaborate and ask for help when we needed it. It was more fun and less stressful to work there, and our productivity improved.
Things were humming along professionally, but I was experiencing bloating and pain in my abdomen. I couldn't eat a lot in one sitting. For lunch I'd usually opt for a small can of tuna. I'd eat it right out of the can, and my new friends teased me about my cat food. The doctors thought I had adhesions from previous abdominal surgery, so I was scheduled for outpatient surgery on a Friday. Back at work Monday.
Except that isn't how it turned out. The doctor found cancer. He was a general surgeon, so he knew to leave it alone and refer me to a board-certified gynecological oncologist. I had to wait a few weeks to see the fancy doctor, and it was almost exactly one month later that I had my big surgery. The incision is what they call pelvis to sternum. It's big. Lots of staples.
I was recovering in the hospital. My husband had been there, but at first I wasn't allowed other visitors. They finally said it was OK to see people, and the first three visitors to walk through my door were Mary, Charlene and Sandee. They were smiling and overjoyed to see me alive. The three people I had dismissed because I didn't need them.
It was a terrible time, and they were so kind and caring. At the hospital, Mary wanted to see the scar, and I quickly flipped off my covers to show her. Young Sandee said later that she almost fainted. We laughed for a long time about that. The business unit was eventually dissolved, and we all went on to do other things, but we kept up our friendship as we moved about the company.
I left South Carolina for a new job in Texas and lost touch with them. But they have never left my heart. Building a relationship with Mary, Charlene and Sandee changed me. I learned life is not all about the work and not everything a fast-talking lawyer says is bullshit. I learned that even on the job, work isn't all about the work.