How cancer changes you
While you and everyone else knows at some level that life is finite, you probably have never thought about it as concretely or as frequently as after a diagnosis of cancer. Cancer survivors may be acutely aware of our limited time on earth, mental health experts say. Mortality is, quite literally, in your face. So the cancer experience may affect your perception of time. You may feel suddenly impatient and become acutely aware of your frustration at spending time doing things you always perceived as meaningless — only now they may seem increasingly so. Whenever you have a heightened sense of time being finite, you start to think more and more about what matters to you and how you want to spend your time. Trite as it may sound, cancer truly is a life-changing event. Often, someone who has weathered a cancer diagnosis comes through treatment much stronger — and ready for change.
Why cancer changes you
Although many more people now survive cancer, there can be the thought that your cancer could be life-shortening. At the very least, you’re aware that, if you expected to live to 85 or beyond and die of old age, your script could be different. And that’s reason enough to rethink career, friends, family, travel and other leisure pursuits.
Is your reaction typical?
No one says, “I’m glad I got cancer.” But most everyone says “It changed the way I look at my life, the way I handle relationships, my career, everything.” Your reaction is very typical if you are talking about your need to do something more meaningful on the job or off the job, such as spending more time with family or volunteering for a worthy cause. Your reaction is typical if you find yourself thinking, “Life is precious and significant. How can I make changes in my work life that will support the changes I want to make in my personal life?” Mental health experts who work with cancer survivors say it’s common for people to seek out more creative, meaningful, avenues of work or leisure. For many people, when trying to shift to a more fulfilling job or career, money becomes secondary, despite the fact that medical bills may be overwhelming. On the other hand, if you have been living hand-to-mouth, you may decide you need to get more education or go after a better-paying job. If you are under-stimulated at work, you may be even more likely to think about change.
One woman’s story: from work-work-work to a more balanced life
Kerry (not her real name) was a go-go-go ad sales rep. Single and loving it, the Manhattanite would typically work 60 or 70 hours weeks without a thought. She was an executive at major magazines. Then came the diagnosis of a very rare cancer affecting the appendix that had spread to her ovary. “It was very bad,” she says. At 50, she thought she had plenty of productive work years left. After surgery, chemo and a long recovery, one day at her job she said to herself: “I survived cancer to do this?” She thought of what else she might do, but came up empty. Finally, she decided it wasn’t the career but the place where she worked, which wasn’t well-managed, she says. She found another publication, better managed, and has remained in her original career — for now. “What I am finding is, I enjoy being back in the workforce. But I look at work differently. It is not my whole life. Before I was much more of a workaholic. My work is not who I am and I think it used to be, although not totally. I worked much longer hours. It’s down to about 50 hours [a week] now. And I know the job isn’t life and death. I like what I do. I get satisfaction out of it. And I’m a pro.” Still, she thinks about other possibilities, including writing. “I’m not so sure this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And, like many cancer survivors, she is a realist. “The rest of my life may not be so long. The cancer might come back, but right now I am cancer-free.” Even financial woes don’t get her down like they might have before. “Financially, I’m a mess.” But, she says “it’s only money. I have my life. And I have energy.”
Typical career strategies
Sometimes, finances get in the way of your search for more meaningful work. For instance, you may say you want to leave your low-paying, un-stimulating job and go work with underprivileged kids — but that may be even more low-paying. Typically, as a cancer survivor, you may be forced to create short-term and long-term plans to realize your goal of getting to more meaningful work. In the short-term, you may need to stay at a less-than-satisfying job to pay down debt, including medical bills, before you can enjoy your plans for long-term job change.
Gearing up for change
While it’s normal to want to charge into change, mental health experts give trite but valuable advice: Look before you leap. Use the same methods for decision making as you made about your cancer treatment — research your options, look around, get a lot of opinions. Don’t impulsively switch jobs — see if you can “shadow” someone in your coveted career, at least for a few days. Research the chances for advancement, or the chance to live in other parts of the country — whichever is more important to you. Change at a pace you’re comfortable with but know that the urge is often to go too quickly. Also keep in mind that while your family may want to coddle you, protect you from doing too much too soon, you may need to reassure them you’re capable of — and even need — new challenges.
Getting help with change
Cancer and Careers offers a variety of free programs and services to help with a career change, including events, a Resume Review service, Job Search Toolkit, blogs and an Ask a Career Coach message board. You may also be interested in our article on “Finding Meaningful Work.”
If you’re a cancer survivor, you may have a sense of “forward propulsion” that comes out of the experience, a sense that the sickness, now in the past, was perhaps one of your greatest motivators. And, with some patience and planning, the end of your cancer story can be a happy one, complete with more meaningful relationships on and off the job.