On cancer at 22: An interview with Flatiron's Kris Civil

April 29, 2019


We sat down with Kris Civil, a facilities manager at Flatiron, last spring for a conversation about his experience with cancer.

FH : This is an important conversation; we work alongside people every day, but we don't necessarily know a lot about each other.

Kris : Yeah, probably a lot of people don't know that I had cancer.

FH : Right. So first, it would be great if you could just tell me a little bit about yourself.

Kris : My name is Kris and I'm 30 years old. I grew up in Harlem. Moved to the Bronx in my teenage years. I'm a regular guy. Just like to chill, stay home. I'm very family oriented, so I like to do a lot with my mom and my aunts, cousins.

FH : What can you tell me a little bit about what you do here at Flatiron?

Kris : I'm facilities. If something breaks or needs tightening, I'm there for that. Basically, all the beverages like coffee, cold brew, like I said, beers, I'm behind that stock in the men's room, basically all the supplies. I handle the packages that people get here.

FH : What is something that you do that many wouldn't know about or don't even realize that you do?

Kris : Building the standing desks, a lot of these chairs I built.

FH : How did you hear about Flatiron?

Kris : My cousin was working here and she told me that Rosie was looking for a guy to come help out. At first, I was a little skeptical because of the hours, it was only four hours a day. Also, I was a contractor, but I already had a job. So I was going to leave my job to come be a contractor and there's no guarantee that I'm going to stay. But knowing my own ability after the first couple of days on the job, I was like, ''I can do this.'' So after a few months, they were like, ''Now we've got to make you full time.''

FH : That's so good. What were you doing before Flatiron?

Kris : I worked in the meat market in a freezer with a lot of chickens and burgers. My hours were 3:00 AM to 11:00 AM with mandatory two hours overtime every day. I was a picker. So supermarkets would put in their order, and I'd just go around with a pallet and put whatever they ordered on the pallet.

FH : What are the things that you've enjoyed so far about working here?

Kris : The people and the food. Just very great co-workers here, everyone is friendly. You could feel the love here. It's different. That's what's really different from my old job.

FH : So like I said before, I think it's important for us to understand and share stories so we can empathize with one another. Thank you for being willing to discuss your experience with cancer. How old were you when you were diagnosed? What was life like before your diagnosis?

Kris : I had just turned 22. I was in my party stage and going out all the time with my friends. It just kind of happened, like it was one of those things that really just happened. I was out partying one night. I woke up the next day. I was on the phone and I coughed. And I felt something coming up, so I had to go to the bathroom. I was thinking it was like a cold. But there was blood and I was just like "Whoa." I didn't feel anything, no pain, but I was coughing up blood.

FH : So you just felt normal?

Kris : I felt normal but I knew that it wasn't normal to cough up blood. So I told my sister and she was like, "No, we've got to call the ambulance." Called the ambulance and...

FH : And were you living by yourself at the time?

Kris : I was staying with my sister then. So yeah, it just happened really fast. They told me it was one thing. The next thing you know, I went to get a CAT scan and they were like you have a mass on your lung, we have to get you surgery to find out what it is, take the mass out. They said it's the size of a quarter, the mass. I had the surgery and they actually said it was good news. You have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I was like, "that's good news?" But that's one of the more curable cancers – it could have been worse.

FH : What were the steps of things that happened in terms of them figuring out the diagnosis?

Kris : They gave me all types of tests on my breathing. I was breathing fine. So that's when they were like we can't find out what's wrong so we're just going to give you a CAT scan.

FH : What did you find out after that, once everything cleared up?

Kris : When they told me to come in so I could get the results of the CAT scan, that's when I was told that I had to get surgery.

FH : Before your diagnosis, what did you know about cancer? Did you understand everything people were talking about? How did that work when you were actually communicating with the doctors and hospital staff?

Kris : Well, I didn't know much about cancer at the time. They told me it's very curable -- I think they said like over 90 percent. So right then and there I was like, ‘All right, I'm going to beat this.' My family were the ones who were sad and crying but I told them to hold their heads up. But yeah, I didn't know much about it. The thing I did know is that my grandmother had it.

FH : She had the same type?

Kris : She had the same type and she beat it. She passed soon after that because she had it when she was older. I guess her being drained from going back and forth to the hospital and all of that like that's probably what I would say caused her death, but not the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

FH : How was your family around this time? How was your support system?

Kris : I got close to my stepmom because of this -- her and my dad would come out often. My dad and my mom would switch days with me. My mom would come one day and stay like the whole day. And my dad would come the next and stay the day. And that actually made my mom and my dad closer again too. But yeah, at first it was sad but once they saw me holding up and hearing all the good things from the doctors, they were okay.

FH : What was the recovery process like and how did that work?

Kris : Well I had the surgery, then I think I started getting chemo like maybe the next week. The chemo, that was bad. I'm not going to lie, I hated the chemo.

FH : What was horrible about the chemo?

Kris : In the beginning, I would get the chemo on a Thursday. I would be good Friday. I would be good Saturday. But then Sunday, it just all hit me. So Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I'm sick, crazy. And then Thursday, I wake up and have to get chemo again. There are a lot of things wrong with the chemo. The taste it leaves in your mouth, I lost my hair. I also have a port, still have it in my chest, the port-a-cath. And it's just depressing, sitting in the chair, seeing other people get it. You get it. I hate it.

FH : How long would you sit for chemo typically?

Kris : Three to five hours. Sitting there getting injected with poison. That's how I feel about it, poison.

FH : Why do you say that?

Kris : Because it made me feel nasty, and it always left a nasty taste in my mouth. My food tasted different.

FH : For surgery, for chemo and for radiation, did you have those options presented to you? How was it decided that that was what you were going to do?

Kris : They asked me if I wanted the port-a-cath or if I wanted to just get chemo through an IV. They told me if I get it through the port, I would only have to get the minor surgery once. But if I get it through the IV, they would have to stick an IV in me every week.

FH : What was it like in terms of the people who were with you? The nurses?

Kris : Well, I loved my doctor. When they changed her and gave me a new doctor, I was so mad that I told them I wouldn't see anybody else. They brought her back.

FH : What did you like about her?

Kris : She was just gentle and calm. She would calm me down. And the nurse's name was Ms. Bella. They were just the kindest, gentlest people, where other people were rougher. When I told Nurse Bella that the hand sanitizer -- smelling that every day for most of the day – that it started getting me sick, she started washing her hands with soap. That's what I liked. And she used to give me sandwiches when I was getting chemo. She'd say, "Oh, you need an extra sandwich? Sure." That's why I liked Ms. Bella.

FH : You also said you got sick -- you'd get sick a couple days after the chemo. How did you manage that?

Kris : Well, yeah. It was coming to a point that I was so sick that I couldn't eat. I was drinking a lot of Ensure Nutra shakes to substitute the food. And my family would be there to help because I would basically be in bed for three days straight. The most I would do was go to the bathroom, shower, that sort of thing. My family did help a lot, they were real supportive. I'm really family-oriented, so they were just there for me. Whatever I needed.

FH : How did cancer affect your ability to work?

Kris : Well, at the time when I first got diagnosed with cancer, I had a job. I basically told them that I had a lot going on so that was going to be my last day. It took me a while to get back into work after I was cured. I was looking for jobs for a long time because no one would hire me. And I didn't have SSI [Supplemental Security Income] or SSD [Social Security disability]. They denied me, but they told me I wouldn't be sick for more than a year, and I wind up being sick for exactly 12 months. So I didn't want to deal with all of the applications. So I just did my own thing. I worked side jobs here and there whenever I could find something.

FH : How was your insurance? I know that cancer can be expensive.

Kris : Well, I didn't have to pay for a thing. I think it was around the time when I got the surgery and I was laying in the hospital, they came to my bed and filled out some papers and I was insured. It was through Medicaid. Everything was fully covered.

FH : Now, that's awesome because I know it can be so expensive. Do you know who helped with your insurance?

Kris : No. I don't really know who it was. Somebody that worked in human resources in the hospital just came to my bed asking me questions. She was just filling it out for me.

FH : Wow, that's amazing. Because for some people, it will end up that they go bankrupt. I mean, it also depends on how long their treatment is and everything else.

Kris : Yeah. My chemo lasted 11 months. The radiation lasted two months. I know some people who go through cancer, they had chemo for years. So I'm lucky.

FH : Are there other things about cancer or your experience that you ever want to tell people about?

Kris : When I first got cured, I kept in touch with the people in the hospital, so for the first couple years they had me come talk to young boys and girls who were going through it. I'm not going to say that I want to be an advocate, giving speeches, but if anyone has questions, I don't mind answering them. I'll always give my opinions or talk about my experience with it. So that's not a problem, but to say I want to talk about it a lot, nah. Because it still was a hard experience for me.

FH : I appreciate you talking about it now.

Kris : No problem.

FH : So you are about to have a baby. Does this experience at all shape how you think about being a parent?

Kris : Well, the one thing I can say is this whole experience has made me become a better person. Because when it happened I was young and living care-free. So now I think about things more. I actually stop and think before I do things now. And as for being a parent, I'm not going to say that cancer is going to help me be a better parent because I have a lot of nieces and nephews so I have had plenty of practice with them. But I do worry, because my grandma had had cancer. And I wouldn't want to pass it down to my son, or want him to go through that, or even pass it down to one of his kids. So that's what I think about. I don't know. I hope it doesn't. It's just in the back of my mind.

FH : Going back to your cancer experience, was there anything that you wish you had been different?

Kris : I'm not going to say that I wish things were different because they cured me. I know that's how things work. The pain before the gain. I just wish there was a way they could eliminate chemo or have lighter doses. I would have liked to have had an app for when I was at my home to talk to my doctor on days that I wasn't feeling well instead of having to wait until the next time I was going to see my doctor.

I don't really know what else I would want to change about it because at the end of the day, all I wanted during the whole thing was to just to get it out of me. Like I said, I had great doctors around me, my family was very supportive at the time and ensured that I didn't have to worry about a thing on the financial side.

FH : Do you have to regularly see the doctor?

Kris : I just go get checkups. I have an appointment scheduled for sometime in April, because with these doctors you can't just go see a doctor right away. And it has to be a day that I have time and I'm not working. I'm going to get this port removed. I need a little more flexibility. My son is about to arrive, so to hold him on my chest, I can't have the port there. I also just want to be more free, to know it's gone. And that it's not coming back.



Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.