How I Knew I Had Bladder Cancer

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As told to Jacquelyne Froeber

About three years ago, I started a new job as vice president of recruiting for a legal services firm. I was thrilled to be doing something I love at a new company. I was less thrilled, however, that I was also dealing with symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI).

I had the classic signs: pain, pressure and urgent need to pee. But the symptoms would come and go, and I didn’t have blood in my urine. Even stranger, when I went to see my doctor, my urinalysis was normal. No sign of a UTI. Still, given the symptoms, my doctor said it was a UTI and prescribed antibiotics.

I took the pills and tried to focus on work. My job is 100% remote and requires a lot of meetings on camera, but I did my best not to run to the bathroom every 30 minutes.

On the third trip to the doctor, I was desperate for relief. The urgency had ramped up. I couldn’t get through an hour-long meeting without excusing myself. And the pain was getting worse too. I was embarrassed by all the bathroom breaks — what 35-year-old woman can’t make it through a meeting — but what else could I do?

In reality, no one said a thing but I knew I had to be upfront with my boss. I told her that I was having a health issue — I just didn’t know what it was yet. So on that third trip to the doctor’s office, I asked to see a specialist (a urologist).

By the time I saw the urologist about two weeks later, the pain was so intense at times I couldn’t stand up straight.

I was hunched over on the examining table when he said my symptoms were not normal. I was so relieved when he said this was no way to live and he was committed to finding out what was causing all the pain.

The next few weeks were a blur of tests including a cystoscopy, which is a procedure that allows your healthcare provider to see your bladder. To avoid time away from work, I scheduled the first or the last appointment of the day. If I couldn’t make that work, I told my boss right away so she knew I’d be out of pocket.

Surprisingly, all the blood tests and scans came back normal. It sounds weird to say I was disappointed, but I was. I was devastated. I knew this pain wasn’t normal — none of this was normal. Even my urologist was stumped. He ordered a biopsy of tissue in my bladder. That’s when the test results came back, and I was diagnosed with non-muscle invasive bladder cancer (NMIBC).

The word cancer was a swift punch to the gut. I felt all the wind leave my body. I knew it was a possibility, but how did a UTI become cancer?

My mind immediately skipped over to work. I started my job just three months ago. What would I tell my boss? Should I tell my boss? Are they going to fire me? Would my new insurance drop me?

Once the initial shock wore off, I knew I had to be open and honest with my employer regardless of what happened.

I went into our meeting with a plan to continue working through treatment, and I shared my schedule, including days I wouldn’t be able to work. I also let them know that I wasn’t sure how I was going to respond to surgery or treatment but the job was important to me (so was health insurance) and working was the best thing for me.

Luckily, everyone was extremely supportive. Looking back, sharing my intentions at the start helped me continue to work while juggling all the appointments, phone calls, scheduling and everything that happened after diagnosis.

Over the next few months, I had procedures to remove the tumors and six weeks of bacille calmette-guerin (BCG) treatment for bladder cancer, which involved injecting tuberculosis bacteria into my bladder and keeping it in there for two hours so my immune system would attack any cancer cells that might be growing.

The surgery and treatments worked, and today my most recent test results show no evidence of cancer. But NMIBC has a high chance of recurrence, so I’m on a maintenance plan that includes BCG treatment six times a year.

I continue to be an open book about bladder cancer and how it may affect work. Sometimes I tolerate the treatment really well and I’m up the next day and ready to go. Other times, I have a lot of pain and I’m so tired I can’t get out of bed. Either way, my colleagues know the day after treatment is flexible for me. This allows me the time to listen to my body and do what’s right for my health without the pressure of calling in sick at the last minute or overpromising for that day.

Overall, I’ve learned to give myself grace when it comes to balancing work and bladder cancer. If I need to visit the bathroom five times during a meeting, who cares? I know no one is noticing it as much as me. And I don’t limit sick time to being unbearably uncomfortable. Could I power through when I’m falling asleep at my computer after treatment? Sure. But it’s OK to say, “This is all the gas I have right now, but I will give 100% tomorrow.”

I know I’m beyond fortunate and not everyone can take time off of work or feel comfortable sharing their diagnosis. But there are resources like the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) that can help.

Every person with cancer has different needs. For me, it was the right decision to share my plan with colleagues and plan for the unexpected. I’ve been posting about managing bladder cancer on LinkedIn, and it’s helped me connect with other people who are working and going through the same thing. Bladder cancer may interrupt work at times, but it won’t stop me from accomplishing everything I want to do.

Resources

Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN)

This educational resource was created with support from Astellas and Pfizer.

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Our Real Women, Real Stories are the authentic experiences of real-life women. The views, opinions and experiences shared in these stories are not endorsed by HealthyWomen and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HealthyWomen.

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