Balancing Work, School and Treatment: Kristie Fields
While out of work in 2014, Kristie Fields, of Newport News, Virginia, then 37, delayed having a breast lump examined. Her husband and mother finally convinced her to get it checked out and she learned she had stage II triple-negative breast cancer.
Kristie was scheduled for treatment when she heard from a former supervisor and mentor that a job was opening up that would be a good fit for her. It was in the business office at a local university where Kristie had previously worked.
Kristie talked with LBBC contributing writer Robin Warshaw about her experience balancing work, school and treatment.
Robin: Were you able to go back to work?
Kristie: I sent an email to my mentor stating I was going to have to turn down the job because of my diagnosis and treatment. She replied and said, “Well, the job is here. Whenever you get ready, let me know. We’ll hold this position for you.”
I had a mastectomy and additional surgeries because of infections and other things. I emailed my mentor a week after the last one and told her what had been done so far and what still needed to be done. At that point, it was one more surgery and chemotherapy. That’s when she told me to come in and interview and gave me the start date, which was August 1, 2014.
Robin: Why do you think your former boss helped you?
Kristie: She was impressed with the job I did before. So when I expressed that I wanted to come back, she was more than willing to do that.
Robin: Were you nervous about starting a new job while you still had medical stuff going on?
Kristie: I was kind of terrified. It wasn’t going back to the university, because I felt very comfortable going back there. I think it was everything in general. There are certain times of the school year that are busier than others. And I didn’t know how my body was going to react to being around kids, young adults, and the infections they might have. I was a little bit nervous about that.
Robin: How did you manage your chemo schedule around working?
Kristie: That was very difficult. Chemo started in the middle of September and ended [in] late December. I scheduled my chemo for Friday, so I had Friday and the weekend off every other week. Then there were times that I would take that Monday and Tuesday off to regroup and make sure my body was [recovered].
In the beginning, I just tried to do it with only Friday off and it didn’t work out. My anxiety was already high. On Friday when I would get chemo, I would be extremely fatigued and sick. I got this medicine [doxorubicin (Adriamycin)] nicknamed “the red devil” that really takes you over the top [in terms] of being sick. It just takes a toll on your body.
I went back to my mentor and asked if it would be possible to have that Friday and the following Monday and Tuesday off so I could really recoup from treatment.
Robin: Did your co-workers ever gripe about you not being there?
Kristie: There was a little chatter when I was unable to perform due to illness or when I had to call out after chemo treatment. My supervisor was very understanding and there was never an issue with HR or management. Every day I missed was pre-approved.
Robin: You worked at a university and were in chemo for pretty much the whole fall semester. And you were also taking classes for your undergraduate degree at the same time?
Kristie: Yes. I don’t know how I did those assignments! When I would get off work, I would go to class from 5 p.m. until almost 10 p.m. Everyone there was working adults. It was 8-week semesters, but the same amount of work as a 16-week schedule. I had two courses per semester.
The teachers were very supportive. In the event I was unable to turn in something on time, which was a very rare thing, they were understanding. When I went out for one of the surgeries, I was able to do assignments from home and email them in to them.
The other students didn’t know [about the breast cancer diagnosis] until I started chemo. I had one classmate who one day asked me, “Is something going on with you?” The reason she picked up on it was my eyebrows were missing and she had gone through chemo years before.
Robin: Did juggling work and school affect your ability to handle the pressures of treatment?
Kristie: The one thing that really kept my mind off my situation was working and attending school. Because I really did not have time to feel sorry for myself. I did have a moment where I sent my oncologist an email saying, “I don’t think this treatment is working out and I think we need to stop it.” But, of course, my family talked me back into going to my next chemo session.
When someone is going through a life-changing medical experience, you need something that’s going to occupy your time so you’re not sitting there thinking, “Oh my God, I hate this chemo!” I had to study for an exam so all my energy was going toward studying or I had to finish this project for work. I didn’t have too many moments where I was just sitting there stressed out about my next chemo or the ailment I was going through because of chemo.
Robin: You also had three kids at home. Your youngest was 6 years old and the eldest was 18. On days when you were sick, it must have been rough.
Kristie: I was not a super woman. I had my husband and my mom, who really did step up and did 95 percent of the work at home. My husband took me to every appointment as well as worked himself. My mom came over even though she was going through medical things I didn’t know about until halfway through my chemo. But she was still coming to my house, helping us out. So, I had a very strong support system. I don’t know how I would have made it through without them.
Robin: How did things go for you at work after chemo?
Kristie: I got a promotion to another department after my mentor retired. I had just done a big reconstruction surgery, which I thought was the last surgery, but it was not. I got the promotion before I went out for my surgery. It went through after I got back.
I knew a few people in that office as well. They were just as supportive as my first department was.
Robin: What are you doing now?
Kristie: I left the university job for a position that didn’t work out. I completed my undergraduate degree in May 2017 and am now in a graduate program in healthcare delivery science. I also got certified as a patient navigator. In this part of Virginia, we don’t have too many patient navigators.
Now I’m focusing on my business, which I call PinkSlayer. It’s pretty much a patient navigation business, where you help others navigate through the healthcare system. I took all of my experiences and turned it into helping others. Right now, I’m doing small things for a couple clients until I’m able to get a grant.
I’m hoping to use my master’s degree to help low-income communities gain access to healthcare. I advocate for at-risk communities with a group at the Hampton University Cancer Research Center. I’m also on the board of the Cancer Action Coalition of Virginia, which offers workshops and training throughout the state. I want to educate at-risk communities on options to obtain healthcare.