The Impact of Cancer on My Work and Life
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Profile photo of Jeffrey Poehlmann

Prior to my diagnosis, I had been actively pursuing a return to a career that I had walked away from seven years earlier. After a 25 year span of working in film and video production, I had needed a break; having been recently married and with an infant daughter, the type of work I had been doing was causing more stress than it was worth, as well as disrupting my priorities with my young family. So I walked away from that field, intent on reinventing myself as a writer, which was what I had intended to do as a young man but had been constantly pulled away from. Unfortunately, in the process of this “reinvention,” I made some poor choices and while I had some moderate success with some of my work, it did not lead where I was hoping it would go.

Perhaps it was a combination of errors, missteps and even a lack of focus, but whatever the reasons I was responsible for, additional forces outside of my control played their own part. We moved at the peak of the housing bubble, a move that was supposed to be temporary, and found ourselves hugely underwater on our new house. My work prospects dried up. Things became very stressful for a few years as more burden seemed to shift onto my wife while I tried multiple “reinventions” before realizing that I had to find a steady job doing in the area I had the most experience. It was surprisingly easy to find a company that was a solid fit for me, at which I was certain I would thrive. It may have seemed like a potentially backward step, but it felt very forward, and I began to make the move — until I was diagnosed, quite unexpectedly, with Stage IV lung cancer.

There were aspects of the diagnosis that were quite devastating, of course. Professionally, I knew that I could not take the position that I had been interviewing for. It would require some travel and hours that I could not commit to during my treatment — if I even knew what the treatment would be like. But there were other aspects that were a relief. While I say that the diagnosis of lung cancer was unexpected, I knew for months that something was wrong. I had been suffering from shortness of breath, I had been treated for pneumonia, and a mass had been discovered on an X-ray of my lungs. But nobody thought it was likely to be cancer, much less be willing to suggest it could be advanced.

After all, I was a healthy and relatively young man. At 46, I was significantly younger than the majority of lung cancer patients, although there are certainly more of us diagnosed at younger ages now than there used to be. I also had none of the known risk factors working against me — no family history, no smoking, no hazardous materials from my job. I was in good shape, I had a healthy diet, I even generally felt good (in spite of the shortness of breath I had endured).

The irony, of course, is that the shortness of breath that put me on the road to my eventual diagnosis was not caused, at least directly, by my cancer. I had a lung infection from a case of bronchitis, and this may well have saved my life. The cancer, however, changed things dramatically.

I not only had to step back from pursuing the staff position that had been readily in my grasp, but I had to realize that even the smaller gigs I had lined up were not going to be easy to manage. An international collaboration that I was involved in creatively was pushed aside when I had to get an extra biopsy to determine my treatment path. While I was able to push myself through a small video production during my first round of chemotherapy, it soon became clear that the effects of chemo were cumulative and I would not be physically able to sustain the required work during the coming months.

And with my cancer, chemotherapy was the only available option. My oncologist is a research scientist who had hoped to get me into a clinical trial, but after our genetic profiling revealed that I have a rather “vanilla” version of adenocarcinoma, there was no specific trial available that I qualified for. We reconnoitered around my chemotherapy options, what my expectations might be, and what was left to consider if the chemo did not work to reduce the cancer in my system.

But the plans I had for restarting my career were through. At least as I had initially conceived them. Over the ensuing months, more freelance work came my way, but more than that, I discovered that telling my story was meaningful in ways that I had not foreseen. As a blogger, I was connecting with other patients and many caregivers who appreciated the insights I had to share and the honesty with which I approached my own experiences.

I have the good fortune of being with a supportive spouse; my wife has worked tirelessly to ensure that the transitions in our lives and routines have been smooth for our daughter, and we are lucky that she has been able to maintain good health insurance throughout this time. My good fortune extends also to the medical staff where I have been treated, who have shown me an amazing amount of care, both physically and emotionally.

Now, two and a half years into my open-ended chemotherapy treatment, I still have to deal with side effects like fatigue and digestive issues, but I have a solid grasp of what I am able to accomplish most of the time — along with an understanding of my own limitations. At one time, I had believed that I would be able to go back to full-time work while still undergoing treatment. But I realize that neither my body nor my schedule is that predictable. What I can do, however, is continue to refocus on my writing. And perhaps not so ironically, the writing I now do about cancer has opened up new opportunities for me. It has become my passion, as I see ways to affect positive change through my words and the sharing of ideas and information.

I had not expected this at all in the months leading up to my first infusion, but I feel more professionally directed and clear about my mission than I ever felt before.

Life is full of twists and turns, as the old saying goes. Sometimes we need to embrace the unexpected twists rather than trying to straighten the road before us to fit our vision of where we thought it should lead. Because we do not really know where we are going until we arrive.

I am a happier man now, at 49, living with managed Stage IV adenocarcinoma, than I was pre-diagnosis at 46. There are a new set of stresses in my life, surely, and a lot more uncertainty that I am constantly aware of — but objectively, the uncertainties were always there and always would have been even if they were ignored or pushed into the shadows. I have learned to let go of my fears and worries as much as anyone truly can, and I work on this process every day. But what I work on most is being in the moment and being aware of what life continues to offer.

There is bountiful joy out in the world; even on the worst days of my cycle, I try to find it, to touch it if I am able, to connect somehow with what gives this experience meaning.

My diagnosis may have disrupted the direction of my career, derailed my job options and even shook my personal life fairly hard. It was temporarily devastating to those I love and who love me, though by now we have all mostly moved beyond that period of shock and confusion and, in some moments, despair. To say that our collective lives have been “normalized” may not be wholly accurate, but things have stabilized. And life continues.

And as long as life continues, work continues, because through whatever work there is, we can find meaning. I do not thank Cancer for these small epiphanies. In truth, I would much rather that I never had to deal with cancer in my life. But I did. I do. And since I do, I try my best to embrace my situation and work from within it as best I can. This, perhaps, is the greatest impact that cancer has had on my work and my life.

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