“Everyone is replaceable, Dr. Shedd.”
She stares steadily at me in defiance from the back corner seat, arms folded across her chest. Her backpack in front of her remains zipped, contents tucked inside, while her classmates continue to file into the classroom. Her seat is between two immense windows in the back, and I glance beyond her to see the snow is picking up, flakes landing on the shoulders of the students trudging across campus to their various classes. The group of students enrolled in my course slowly make their way into the classroom, snowflakes quickly melting as the heat finds their bodies. They blink rapidly as their eyes adjust to the bright fluorescent lights. They settle in seats around her, taking out laptops, and removing hoodies in the warmth of the space despite the chill of the morning.
She, however, continues to hold her gaze directly on me, waiting for me to respond. I am thinking of my department chair’s words from a meeting earlier that week, reminding me of declining enrollment and noting a handful of students in my course were not passing. My explanation that one needs to submit assignments to receive a grade received a swift response, “Everyone needs to pass. Figure it out.”
And so, I approach students quietly without others seeming to know about missing assignments, pulling them aside to ask about plans for submission. When met with resistance, I offer what I think is a logical response that we only get paid at our jobs when we show up and do the work. In the same flash, I think about how there is no way any of them could know how much I had to show up and put in the hard work in the last few years. I don’t tell any of them that after class I will be driving in the snow to meet with my oncologist for another appointment. Again, I will need to show up. Again, I will need to do the work.
But she was right—I am replaceable.
It was a comment that was benign on the surface and wouldn’t have affected me had it been made a handful of years earlier. But in that moment, it metastasized from my conscience into every cell. The only reasonable course of treatment was to allow myself to be replaced and to be replaced quickly.
Having earned promotion and tenure just a few months before, I was scheduled for sabbatical the following semester. My notice to my chair and the University shortly after this exchange did not leave any gaps for my department, aside from their need to find someone for the following year to instruct the four undergraduate courses I taught each fall and three classes in the spring, as well as the additional graduate course in fall, spring, and summer. Having returned to teaching two days after my mastectomy and continuing to work full-time through the year of chemotherapy, I was the inspirational, brave cancer warrior that could do anything. Anything, except allow herself to properly heal.
And so, I found a new position that enabled me to move back to my home state closer to my family and to work a reasonable number of hours instead of nearly twice what a typical work week involved. As the grant on which I was working wrapped up, I found and accepted a new position that colleagues and friends joked was made for me. Truthfully, my experiences with cancer suggest that I am made for the position. Or more accurately, I can mold myself into the position in a way that works until it is time to replace myself again. I am also acutely aware that I approach my job with a different lens than the way I think my colleagues are looking at our work. Cancer and its treatment have blurred every aspect of how I see things, including my career. In looking at the materials required for my annual review this year, it is nearly impossible to not indicate my greatest accomplishment is being alive when I think about cancer and the brutality of its treatment. My plan for the next year? A repeat of the previous year. Survive.
After all, everyone is replaceable.
On a day when I am feeling brave, I share this story with my partner but in a way that is not courageous at all: sending it as an attachment and hoping it gets lost among the piles of messages I am confident are in his inbox. It is on the heels of a particularly tumultuous series of weeks, and I am slowly but steadily gaining emotional equilibrium as I prepare materials for my annual review. I feel as if I have returned to the snowy day of that classroom, looking beyond the stare of the student and out the window at the snowflakes gently falling and trying to hold my feet steady on the ice-covered sidewalks, hearing, “everyone is replaceable, Dr. Shedd.” I stare at the self-assessment form trying to justify my worth and think about my greatest strengths or achievements. They are colored by my experience with cancer.
Cancer taught me to listen more carefully and honed my patience, both necessary skills as I work with funders and with a wide variety of stakeholders. I am simultaneously awful and adept at networking because while I prefer to be quietly working by myself, I know now I can handle difficult tasks and talk to anyone about anything at any time. Navigating insurance and managing multiple care providers has carried over to help with grant management and project administration. The only silver lining of the medical bills from cancer is with budgeting, and I acknowledge my habit of cushioning my budgets in case of “unexpected events” thanks to my cancer experience. I’ve also learned from trying to do things during chemo that multi-tasking is a bad idea unless I want to do things twice. This has also helped me with accountability, something I value immensely. Now I recognize that “being busy” is a falsehood, words used to cover and conceal our true reasons for not wanting to participate. And most importantly, cancer taught me the importance of acknowledging others and thanking them for their meaningful contributions.
With a deep breath, I return to the text my partner sent in response to my email. His quick reply in the midst of a busy workday underscores “capacity” is a myth and we make space for the things that are of importance. His words remind me that positions are replaceable. People are not.
Words matter when you are conditioned to believe something. And so I replace the words I have repeated to myself for too long.
I am irreplaceable.