Cancer changed me

I needed an extreme jolt of something to break me out of my heartache

Cancer healed me of a broken heart. I never expected to type out these words about something so extreme. But I needed an extreme jolt of something to break me out of my heartache. I've talked about the symptoms of burnout. But at the centre of it all was a big sense of loss and sadness. And the absolute head f*ckery of part creating something your friends end up meeting the loves of their lives on. While I'm left wondering if my future love is even in the UK. Saying it's a lot to process is somewhat of an understatement. Being told I had an aggressive cancer and that a tumour had been growing inside of me for many months was the extreme wake up call that I needed. It doesn't really make sense. I'm aware of that. But listen to this episode as I unpack some of the thought processes and emotional journey of working through oesophagus cancer towards remission.

Cancer healed me of a broken heart.

I never expected to type out these words about something so extreme.

But I needed an extreme jolt of something to break me out of my heartache.

Cancer dealt me a side swipe blow out of nowhere to wake me up out of that.

We associate heartache with love. Great passionate romances that we wait for and commit our all to. I’ve tended to find with romance a get out clause with my pain or sadness. People are flawed. There are inevitably parts of the relationship that head south. There’s a lingering sense that this failed romance was a learning lesson. Where men are concerned I’d get over it and feel the best is yet to come.

But heartache entangled with dreams and purpose? Wow that’s a whole ‘nother level of shake it off.

Dreams build over years. There’s a narrative to them. For me, they’re woven tightly into my faith. I look up and see many instances, nuances and signs that Papa God has been authoring a life story written into my desires. When a very specific door opened, it was the most exhilarating feeling to have a dream materialise that was better than I’d imagined… But over time it just didn’t pan out as expected. I realised how tightly embedded my dreams and hopes were. And for them not to work out. Not just that but for them to have gone totally different to what I expected, that really broke some serious trust between me and my maker.

Three worlds had collided: my career abilities, my faith and an ongoing problem with the Christian dating scene. I stepped up and felt I could creatively solve a number of issues in the dating scene. In the UK there has been one monopoly for about 20 years. A Christian dating website. Having a single choice doesn’t really create a dynamic and interesting product, especially for people new to the dating scene. Lack of choice can breed complacency and a stagnant status quo. The vibe, design and culture surrounding Christian dating felt less than aspirational. I was convinced this was my career highlight. Being part of a startup could disrupt that stagnancy.

Instead I crashed and burned.

I experienced epic burnout for a number of reasons - one being sucked into excessive working hours. No one cheats sleep or sabbath. I was devastated. I had no other choice but my health and wellbeing needed me to exit and fast. Where do you go from there? I’d left a fantastic role before that. I was UI lead which is the industry title for web designer with a creative team to look after. I loved that job and was reluctant to leave. The team were talented, hard working and crucially were kind. The roles were open, autonomous and enabled each creative to input into different conversations on the vast array of design decisions we made on a weekly basis. I was used to this work culture. It was a shock to the system to be submerged into something very different.

One thing that was a single motivation when I experienced burnout was to write. This all happened nearly 3 years ago. And the writing bug hasn’t left me since. It’s increased. It’s helped me make sense of so much. It’s allowed me to vent and save it all unpublished in a folder buried in my laptop.

So how does a cancer diagnosis fit with all of this?

I was told a number of things about my oesophagus cancer:

  • It’s rare. Mainly ex-smoker men over 65 get it
  • It’s aggressive. The stakes around it coming back are higher than in other cancers
  • It’s advanced. The tumour was likely to have been there many months before I experienced any symptoms

This information was given to me in a couple of meetings. It was a lot to take in. If I’m honest two feelings immediately occurred: it felt incredulous and I had complete peace. It’s worth noting you’re talking to someone who has struggled with a lot of anxiety over the years. I’m not fear avoidant. If I smell fear I tend to want to go right into the heart of it. I want to overcome the things that hold me back. But with my burnout, I also experienced a lot of rage. I’m not sure if my rage was masquerading as fear. Possibly? But more than likely I was at a painful juncture trying to figure if God had wanted to use this startup fiasco as a means to draw me out of the design industry altogether. Another thing I’m slightly aghast to write down, let alone put out there in a podcast.

The rage was, I think, a form of grief.

I shouted, ranted and dropped all the f bombs my dearest friends could bear. I felt a deep amount of fear creep over me trying to resurrect my career. I had zero inclination to design anything. Design had been my bread and butter - more than that my creative outlet for over 15 years. Suddenly the burnout wiped all passion for it. What do you do next when your familiar evaporates? It was unbearable. Couple that with your now ex-startup that was starting to blow up the Christian dating scene. The company had begun to proceed my reputation. The sense of failure galvanises when your own product gets press attention and becomes a word of mouth recommendation.

I felt every impact of that. The thing I had part created was liked but for me unsustainable. I hated the embarrassment of it all. I wish I’d never set eyes on it. I’m slipping into that rant again aren’t I?

Where was I with the cancer? I was incredulous and I had that weird sense of peace. The cancer tore down my rage. That’s as simply as I can state it. I had the full knowledge this thing could threaten my life. And I still can’t fully express my gratitude for this, but the knowledge that it was treatable. The surgery would be hard, as would be the chemo. But seeing cancer from the perspective of deep heartache and seeing my heartache from the realisation I had an intervention at the time that I did… well the overriding thing I felt was completely shattered, humbled and grateful. I’d had no major physical health issues up until this point. I tended to live life fully and push to my extremes. Achievement and ambition are two big drivers for me. I don’t really live for creating a pretty home or creature comforts. I want impact and adventure. Cancer stopped all of that heavily in its tracks. We have a tendency to think we’re entitled to plough on into our 80s. Who wrote that script?

Sometimes in life there’s a heavy big pause.

Realising life isn’t fully owned by us all.

That there’s larger narratives at stake.

We’re being weaved into a larger picture that has its depths as well as highs.

I have to fess up. Hustle culture had gotten under my skin. Believing a good chunk of my destiny is what I work super hard for and create. But something like an aggressive cancer stops you in your tracks. And disrupts that workaholic narrative.

I no longer needed the rage, offence or grief that a dream gone awry had created in me.

I also don’t get access to the blessed life all of the time.

The irony I’m learning is my mistakes, fuck ups and ill health are part of something much more beautiful.

If I can discard the metrics of achievement and success I get to participate in something with a lot more liberty and freedom. I am flawed, I am messy, I am human. Cancer reminds me of that. And I draw breath because of the grace of God alive in my life. He’s creating something richer and deeper in me that looks like total dependence on Him. I look to Him to fill in my blanks where I’m exhausted and tired of making it happen myself. On my back in intensive care I realised this and had so much to be thankful for. Give me the less than easy path, so I’ve got something less stoic to lean on, than hustle in my life.

Keep being courageous x

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