June 13 2024

Stress Tested

by Beth Eddy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Well, the time is almost upon me. My tenure materials are due in early June. The last cancer scare was over the Christmas holidays. My doctors tell me "reduce your stress load." They don't understand my situation.

I was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer in September of 2010. I had a complete mastectomy with the removal of seventeen lymph nodes early that October. Five of those nodes turned out to be cancerous. I was given a diagnosis of Stage III breast cancer. What followed were eight weeks of chemotherapy, then a month and a half of radiation therapy. After a year of recovery, I had a free tram flap replacement of my breast, which involved cutting a segment from my belly fat and muscle and hooking it up to the blood vessels that will keep it alive as my new breast. The second surgery was by far the harder of the two.

During chemo I couldn't focus enough to even read. I'd read the same paragraphs four or five times without real comprehension. Luckily I was on a sick leave for those seven weeks. I returned to teaching while I was receiving radiation. Dressing "professionally" was an interesting accomplishment in that phase. I wore a turban-like hat that fooled no one (I didn't even really try to conceal my lost hair because the wig was so ugly.) I couldn't wear a bra, so I bought several baggy, flowing sweaters and made creative use of scarves.

Life since has been a roller coaster. I have a cancer recurrence scare about once every six months, entailing a lot of tests, which usually show nothing informative or helpful, and my health care team eventually dismisses whatever caused the scare while I try to make myself believe that this is all routine so that I can continue with my coursework and writing of a second book. My tenure clock has been stopped twice during particular scares. The second clock stop was a result of the requests of multiple members of my health care team urging me to lower my stress level, because stress was not only showing up in various ways in my body, but was also elevating my chances of cancer recurrence. But there was little understanding at my educational institution about the need to lower stress levels. For the most part, that second clock stoppage just got me into trouble professionally.

Here I am, tenure materials due in three months, still waiting to hear about an acceptance from a publisher for a book contract, with stress-related eczema on the sole of my foot, mouth and body rashes, and forgetfulness. My stamina has remained low since cancer treatment; my anxiety level is precariously controlled with talk and drug therapy. Hot flashes exacerbated by taking aromatase inhibitors keep me feeling unwell.

Since academia is a second career for me, I used to joke about whether I would go through menopause or get tenure first. We now know the answer to that question, and I'm trying to laugh about it.

At a check-up a few months ago my oncologist asked me, "How's your stress level?" "Couldn't be worse," I replied. I told my doctor about what going up for tenure was like. Her response: "I know. They keep wanting me to go for promotion to full professor here at the hospital, but I just don't have the time or interest." I dropped the subject. She at least had an inkling of what was involved, but our cases were rather different in terms of what was at stake.

Oh well, at least I have a job for the moment when so many others do not. At least I'm on a tenure track when so many other college professors are not.

Beth Eddy is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA and focuses on religion and American pragmatism.


Image: 摂津名所図会「牛頭天王綱引」 People pull a rope in a play of tug-of-war as a religious ritual. From the picture book "Settsu Meisho zue" in the 18th century, Japan. via Wikimedia Commons.