MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — As if battling cancer isn't hard enough work, Suzanne Petro isn't quitting her day job either.
Literally, she can't afford to. And on top of that, she doesn't want to.
General manager of a local Dairy Queen, Petro, 27, has continued working through the nausea and exhaustion of chemotherapy in part because she believes if she just stayed around home, "I'd feel sicker."
But her reasons are practical as well as emotional; without her salary, she said, her family couldn't cover everyday expenses, let alone the portion of her cancer treatment costs not covered by insurance.
The choice to work during chemotherapy is very much a patient-specific one, noted Melody Stanley, coordinator of education and supportive services at the IU Health Ball Memorial Cancer Center. People with the same basic diagnosis will respond differently to health problems and treatment, so what they can do is "very specific to the individual," Stanley said.
Doctors and nurses work closely with their patients to tailor treatment — such as working on symptom management — to help people "live the life they want while they're doing this," she added.
Getting help on paying for treatment varies similarly based on the patient, treatment and circumstances, including any guidelines there might be for income, Stanley told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/Q99SB9 ).
For Suzanne Petro, there was never really any question of what she would do.
Petro's health battle actually began with dreams about cancer before any diagnosis. Several weeks of repeated nightmares about having cancer and symptoms like itchy hands and feet prompted her to call Aflack about getting life insurance, and when the company offered cancer insurance she opted for that as well.
Shortly after that, she noticed a lump around her collarbone, which had grown rapidly to the size of a golf ball by the time she got it checked and received a diagnosis of cancer. Unfortunately in terms of health coverage, that diagnosis was made 28 days after she'd signed on for cancer insurance, just short of the 30 days before that coverage began, so that initial diagnosis wasn't covered, Petro said. (Subsequent care has been.)
Petro is also covered by general health insurance from her husband Nick's job at Walmart, but she still has hundreds of dollars a month in out-of-pocket expenses for her deductible.
Noting that everyone she knows lives more or less paycheck-to-paycheck, Petro cites the difficulty of covering such huge, ongoing extra expenses. "You budget for life. You don't budget for life plus cancer."
To help with those expenses, at least a little bit, Petro's sister, Ashley Duncan, is organizing a benefit on Petro's behalf at Heekin Park this Sunday. "I'm hoping to raise at least $500. That's my goal," Duncan said in a telephone interview.
She was moved to raise extra funds to help her sister after one of their daily phone calls, when Petro told her that after having paid her share of a single medical bill she had just $23 left to cover things like food and gas for the next two weeks, Duncan said.
Petro has applied for assistance with her medical expenses but has been rejected because she still works. From the time of her initial diagnosis, she has been told she should stop working, either taking medical leave or even just quitting, by doctors and other cancer patients.
But that's just not Petro's way. Her father modeled that work ethic for her, working hard through health problems of his own. And she's never taken much time off for medical reasons in the past, returning to work a week after gall bladder surgery and five weeks after her son was born by C-section.
Being denied assistance because she's still working bothers her, she said. "It almost makes it easier to not work."
"Some people think I'm crazy for continuing to work," Petro said, adding, "I absolutely love my job."
She has worked at the East McGalliard Road Dairy Queen for about 10 years, serving as general manager for the past six. In that role, she oversees a staff of 15 to 30 people, does scheduling and orders inventory, as well as customer service.
Many of the staffers have worked there for years, which helps tremendously on the days when Petro isn't working, or when she is working but not feeling her best.
Petro schedules herself to have two days off after chemo — though she still might go in for a few hours to handle paperwork — and then somehow works a double-shift on Sunday, she said. From the start, her bosses, local DQ franchise owners Matt, Chad and Tracy Anderson, have been very supportive of Petro and her wish to continue working.
"She works like 60 hours a week," Duncan noted of her sister. "I don't know how she does it. ... She has days where she can hardly get out of bed, and she's so sick that she can't keep anything down. I just don't know how she gets through the day. She's very, very strong-willed."
Petro is in the midst of chemotherapy treatments now — "so far so good" — and have two weeks of daily radiation after that's done. She cites nausea and "chemo brain" forgetfulness among her symptoms. She dislikes taking medication, so she avoids taking anything for the nausea and "just works through it." With her immune system weakened by chemo and a job that involves being around the general public, she just tries to limit her exposure to people who are coughing — and she uses lots of hand sanitizer, Petro said.
And then there's the exhaustion. After a day at work, she comes home and plays with her son a little, and that's it; she's done for the day. "There's no social life anymore."
As with any experience with cancer, finances are far from Petro's only concern. She's had to face her two biggest fears, she said: needles, and losing her long hair to chemo. She shaved off her hair, measuring 23 inches long, as soon as it began falling out in clumps after her first chemo treatment. "I wanted it to be my choice, not cancer's," she said.
Family support helps; the battle with cancer has brought Suzanne and Nick, her husband of five years, much closer, she said. Even at age 4, her son Brice understands that Mom is sick, and sometimes has to be reassured that she's not going die. He knows now that she might not be up to jumping on the trampoline with him, and jokes "about me being a boy because I have no hair."
Her mother has helped on a day-to-day basis while living with the family for a while recently. And Petro's sister, Duncan, has supported her not only by organizing fundraisers like this Sunday's event, by also by simply being there. "When I need to cry and vent, that's who I call," Petro said.
Duncan said the sisters try to talk at least once a day. "That's my baby sister, and we've always, always been there for each other."
Petro takes some comfort in a different sort of "diagnosis" she received after first hearing the word "cancer" from her doctor. Keenly aware of the dreams that preceded that first lump's appearance, Petro made her first-ever visit to a psychic, she said, adding, "She's been right so far." The psychic's reading, including the timing of her recovery, has appeared to match up with the medical timeline for the end of treatment, if all goes well, by this December, which gives Petro greater confidence in the outcome, she said.
"I'm ready for this to be over," Petro said.
Besides simply wanting to finish with this experience and move on with her life, Petro hopes that timing will prove to be the case. Not only because she'd love to get past the nausea and the tired feeling, and have more energy for her family and work life, but also, she noted ruefully, because if treatment extended into January, her deductible for medical bills would start over again.
Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com