Cancer Mandates NOW
I shot out of college like a rocket, a Summa Cum Laude feminist hellbent on shattering the glass ceiling. A la Sheryl Sandberg, I “Leaned In” so hard I mistakenly buried my altruism until cancer forced my eyes wide open. I had set my sight on becoming a tax partner at a prestigious accounting firm and somehow using those skills to improve the community.
My first job was with a prestigious tax firm, which promised that working all hours during tax season would be balanced by fewer hours the rest of the year. In reality, they expected all hours, always. After my first fall deadline, I horrified my mentoring senior associate by going home after working 40 hours. He expected me to “get ahead” before the winter deadline. I expected to use my gym membership and see my boyfriend! I had averaged 70-hour weeks leading up to a deadline and had to work 25 hours over two days in the final weekend before the deadline. I left for a smaller firm which also falsely promised balance. My mentor tried to lure me into staying with the promise of a “great retirement package.” In a moment of bizarre foreshadowing, I asked, “Well, what if I retire, get diagnosed with cancer, and only have two years to live?”, unaware that at that very moment, my brain was harboring a tumor.
Ultimately, my disillusionment deteriorated my work quality at the next firm, so I was let go. I found a job in banking—a six-month management training program followed by a career making loans. The timing was cruel. Five months in, I was diagnosed with a Grade II oligodendroglioma in my right frontal lobe, the brain section responsible for executive function. They gave me three months unpaid leave, held my job open, and prepaid my health insurance to be reimbursed upon my return. I rushed back to work, eager to get back on track, but this job wasn’t a good fit either. I couldn’t keep up with all the tasks coming my way. Initially, I blamed the tumor for reducing my executive function but looking back it was more that my heart was uncommitted. I wasn’t motivated by closing high dollar values of loans. I found fulfillment in educating my low-income customers. I stubbornly persisted, thinking that with enough longevity I could rewrite the rules. In reality, I couldn’t have a life outside of work with the nonstop deadlines, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my free time. It was a painful relief when they finally fired me.
I’d been fired twice from the finance/accounting industry, and I was disillusioned. At first I blamed cancer for ruining my dreams. It wasn’t cancer; it was me. My values were completely misaligned. I wanted to restructure capitalism to be kinder and more inclusive. So, I reflected on the moments that had fed my soul in my previous jobs. I loved educating first-timers on the home-buying process, working with women to boost their money management skills, and advocating for undocumented folks who didn’t know how to navigate an exclusionary system. The common thread was education and advocacy for those less privileged. I decided teaching high school business could be my next step.
Education attracted me for two reasons. One: I was directly impacting students’ futures. Two: my breaks were mine! I limited my availability on evenings and weekends. I loved teaching. Students’ “a-ha” moments fueled my sense of purpose and made my steep learning curve worth the extra time and energy.
Plot twist! My tumor has always had the worst sense of timing. Starting in September 2021, my first year of teaching, my oncologist was worried by my scans. She couldn’t tell if I had delayed treatment effects, or if the tumor was progressing. By December, we sought additional opinions, all of which pointed toward progression and recommended another round of a more aggressive chemotherapy regimen. Cancer blindsided me yet again, in that I had to shoulder the uncertainty while learning a new job. My initial diagnosis was too late to allow me to pursue fertility preservation. This time around, I fought twice as hard to finish the school year well while doing IVF because my students deserved my best. I knew I couldn’t keep giving my best during chemotherapy, so I resigned from my job. Finally, I have found my calling! The calling is on pause while I complete the new chemotherapy regimen. The fatigue and other side effects would not allow me to show up for my students nor myself, so for the ‘22-23 school year I am substitute teaching when I can. I hope to find a full-time job teaching business next school year.
For me, cancer has been the Great Clarifier. Cancer accelerated my trajectory away from climbing the corporate ladder. When I felt ill and lethargic, I was less successful in pretending that I was motivated to advance the corporate agenda. Cancer forced my eyes wide open. Truthfully, no one knows how many days they have remaining. Chasing prestige blinded me to the ultimate reality that we all are going to die, and that it could be soon. I refuse to spend my days building someone else’s dream. Cancer mandates that I choose NOW to make a difference, NOW to enjoy my life, and NOW to take care of my health.