Jay Lake: Writer

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[Cancer]

[cancer] Class privilege and chemotherapy

I was having breakfast with and this past Saturday morning at Portage Bay Cafe in Seattle’s U district. The wait staff were moving back and forth, every one of them fast on their feet, when it occurred to me to wonder how someone with a job like that would have fared through the chemotherapy regimen I just endured.

That in turn unfolded to realization that most people working in the service industry would be at risk of their livelihood in my situation. I spent the last two months of chemo sitting down, and moving very slowly when I was up, the two months before that not so much better. A job that required me to be on my feet all day, or driving a vehicle to service calls, or shifting stock or pulling parts, would have been impossible.

How would a waiter, or a plumber, or bookstore clerk, maintain their livelihood through such an experience?

I am lucky. I have a well-paid job that mostly involves sitting still and thinking. Or reading and writing, but those are still essentially sitting and thinking. I have a job I could meet the requirements of even through the worst of chemo. A high-end, white collar job open only to someone with a decent-or-better education and the life skills to navigate corporate politics and policies, and the intricacies of American business.

Even then, if I’d been a daily commuter, I’d have been sidelined badly. That my sit-down-and-think job is work-at-home employment meant I was almost perfectly suited to continue through chemotherapy without financial or workplace disruption.

This strikes me as class privilege, a benefit of being a (relatively) high end white collar worker with seniority both in my field and with my employer. And therefore, ultimately a benefit of the accident of my having been born white, male and middle-class into a household with high educational and professional expectations that was able to raise me with the skills to meet those expectations. I cannot imagine the stress of making my living as a waiter at Portage Bay, then having to accept the time and energy limits I endured in the chemotherapy process. That’s completely outside the narrow medical issues, and even largely outside the issues of insurance coverage and so forth.

Do oncologists take this sort of thing into account? Do employers with shift work and hourly wages allow this much latitude to their employees? Watching the wait staff made me realize how damned lucky I have been, and continue to be. As brutal and difficult as this all has been, I keep finding new things for which to be thankful.

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