The Unexpected Way Cancer Helped Me Kickstart My Career
After my cancer diagnosis, I was afraid of losing touch with the world. It turns out that was the key to my success.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I made a lot of promises to myself that I couldn’t keep.
1. Bask in the glory of small illnesses, like colds and bronchitis.
2. Never complain about finals again.
3. Celebrate every haircut.
In reality, colds suck less than cancer but they’re still gross, complaining can be healthy, and most post-chemo haircuts are pretty ugly. But I have, so far, been able to maintain my final promise:
4. Waste no time getting where you want to be.
For better or for worse, this promise has come to mean that I am constantly working at my career. See, when I was 19, newly in treatment for blood cancer, I started experiencing chemo brain. “Chemo brain” is a real phenomenon.
For me, everyday, it meant switching words like “dishwasher” and “cafeteria,” forgetting to text my friends back, and getting distracted watching anything other than 20-minute sitcoms. Most earth shaking change was the fact that I could no longer read a book or structure an essay.
It already felt like six months had been stolen from my sophomore year of college. Now I was not only separate from my college life, but also from my brain. I was afraid of falling behind my peers, and thus my obsession began.
I suddenly pivoted all my focus from academia to a meaningful career. I took two internships when I was in chemotherapy. There was something so motivating about getting dressed in the morning and having someone rely on me, even in the slightest.
My two 10-hour a week, 10-dollar an hour jobs reminded me I had a brain worth using. At the time, I just wanted to keep busy, but I was beginning a habit that still makes me feel safe.
My professor, Dr. Brent Blair, once explained that lack of purpose is an attack on mental health. When you’re so sick you’re sleeping 24 hours straight and can’t take care of your most basic needs, it’s hard to find purpose.
Chemo brain and isolation were terrorizing. In one famous song by Tim McGraw, a dying man goes skydiving, rocky mountain climbing, and 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.
Unfortunately, that’s not possible when you’re laid up with chemotherapy and 24 other medicines. When I was sick in a isolated hospital bed, drinking an Ensure milkshake, I didn’t dream of skydiving or backpacking. I wanted to be sitting at a desk, doing work to help people.
The archetype of the near-death survivor, is an adventurer. There is an expectation that I should want to live extremely and take big risks—go off the beaten path every chance I get, because I’ve brushed closer to death than most people I know.
Instead: My biggest dream is calm, impactful normalcy.
My psychosocial oncologist (a fancy word I call my cancer psychiatrist) helped me turn away from the narrative of going “back to normal” after treatment ended. There was no longer anywhere to go “back” to. My life was going to be different. But it could be powerful and beautiful and new.
And I, like many people in my shoes in movies and books, looked at what I’d now do differently. I told myself I’d regret it if my life wasn’t impactful and engaged with the world around me. I wanted to impress who I was when I could barely get out of bed.
I do have a five year plan. I began crafting it in a hospital room. I acknowledge the irony of fixating on long-term goals while having had a brush with death, but it keeps me going.
I have made remarkable mistakes. Early on, I would go to work too soon after my chemo infusion and end up puking in the work bathrooms.
My cognitive impairment made paying attention on shifts seriously difficult. Later, as I dealt with the traumas of cancer, sometimes the career-motivated decisions I made seriously jeopardized my mental and physical health.
There is beauty in my habits, though. The pattern I’ve maintained in fighting to make my time my own has helped keep me resilient. I am proud that I push back against my history of cancer and try to do work that matters to me.
I am proud that I pushed back against cognitive impairment and went back to school 12 weeks after chemo ended. I am proud that I pushed back against my ensuing eating disorder and tackled both a semester in D.C. and the beginning of recovery.
Cancer is unique and life altering. Just as I cannot relate to every other cancer patient, not everyone can relate to me. I once craved the mundane while sick, so now even photocopying feels like skydiving if I feel like I’m needed, appreciated, and engaged with what I love.
I am proud of my resume. It’s a one-page reminder of all the things I’ve done to keep the promise to 19-year-old me. Each bullet point is an example of an impact I’ve made.
I hope every young woman finds a way to feel this proud of her successes. I believe you can be focused on goals without losing track of important moments. I love my five-year plan and my five-minute obsessions.
So, I give you all official cancer survivor permission (yes, that’s a thing that I just made up), to allow yourself to embrace your intense motivations.
You are a girlboss, you are driven by impact and engagement, and I don’t care if you’re a cancer survivor or not: You can find something to be proud of, and excited about.
Words: Eva Grant