On Living With Cancer In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Margaret Meningioma (a pseudonym) is a social scientist at a university in the Midwest. She is one of the estimated 77,670 people in the United States who will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year. She decided against radiation and had brain surgery in June. She is still recovering and discovering her next new normal. For more information on brain tumors, including symptoms and sources of support, visit The American Brain Tumor Association.


A New Normal

Months ago, I met with a radiation oncologist about my brain tumor. He suggested radiation, which would hopefully arrest the tumor’s growth. When I told him that I could not live with the medication that I was on and the symptoms that I was experiencing for the rest of my life, he assured me I would. He told me that I would discover a “new normal.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I am an academic.”” A new normal would not do.

After 10 years on the tenure track, normal for me often included starting before 7 a.m. It is not that I worked incessantly — I thought of myself as someone who had a good semblance of balance — but that I could work whenever I wanted. If I wanted to pull an all-nighter or attend a conference with a full day of presentations and an evening of social events, I could do so without a problem. I could sit down and write from sunrise to sunset or squeeze in a last review before I called it a day.

Even while serving at the same time in a more administrative position, as director of graduate studies, I had almost complete control over how my day went down. One of the things I loved most about my job as an academic was the autonomy. I was sad — and angry — at the thought of losing it.

What I did not realize until earlier this year was that this autonomy was not only predicated on my position but also my health. In the months before my diagnosis, doing the things that I loved had become more difficult. My concentration was not what it used to be, making it challenging to read an entire article or to follow multiple conversations in my graduate classes. I was forgetting things as simple as where I parked my car at the local grocery store. I had a constant headache. I would come home and sleep, completely tapped out, unable to find the energy that I once had to cook dinner for my family or to do anything after we ate. Maybe I was depressed, or stressed? My mother recommended breathing exercises. My doctor tried prescription after prescription. Nothing helped. I fell farther and farther behind at work.

This was not the first time that keeping up at work was a struggle or that my autonomy was undermined. I started graduate school a month before my son’s first birthday. Throughout my classes, comprehensive exams and dissertation, I had to organize my work around motherhood. Having less time than my peers, I tried to use it wisely. I also cut myself slack. My child was more important than my career, and I was convinced that I could be a successful academic without sacrificing our relationship or my son’s well-being. As he grew, and I graduated, the demands of work and motherhood shifted, but I was always comfortable with the compromises I made in either realm. The truth is, I had never known what being an academic was like without a child. I had never had to transition from one orientation to another. I had never had to find a new normal.

As I drove home from that appointment with the radiation oncologist, I wondered whether I would have to quit my job. My life and my livelihood was my brain. I depended on it functioning, when and where I needed it to. How would I continue at the pace that I was going? Would I ever catch up? Would I ever be able to keep up? Would I still be an academic if I was not actively teaching, writing and publishing? Who would I be without my career?

I threw myself a giant pity party.

At some point, I turned a corner, transitioning from the sixth to the seventh stage of grief, and I began to accept the things that I could not change. I tapped into the spirit of compromise that I had when my son was young. Rather than fighting my body when it told me it was done, I began listening to it. I learned that if I took a short nap — at home or on my office floor — I often had the energy to tackle more tasks later in the day. I tried to finish things long before the deadline so that it would not be as catastrophic if I were not feeling well on any particular day. I learned to say no and to ask for extensions without fretting about disappointing people. I worked when I felt well and took it easy when I did not. I began to see a counselor who specializes in helping people with chronic medical conditions.

Things changed at home, too. I felt no guilt if we ate takeout or the house was not clean. I encouraged my now teenage son to think about ways to lighten my parenting load. In the same way that I had always protected time for motherhood, I protected time for my health. Slowly but surely, I was discovering a new normal. Once I started to work with my circumstances rather than against them, I began to feel productive again. I had renewed energy and optimism, and I was better able to do my work.

Sometimes terrible things are simply terrible, but, for me, misfortune has a silver lining. Less time to work has meant more time with the people whom I love and significantly better productivity when I am working. An uncertainty about what the future holds has taught me to appreciate the present and to focus on what I have accomplished rather than what I have left to do. These are valuable gifts. I have also learned to be kind to myself and to let go of my staunch conceptions of what it means to be a good academic, to be productive and to be successful.

Without a doubt, this entire experience has been easier for me than for many others because I have tenure. I have health care and a paycheck. I only have to worry about making time for appointments, not whether I can afford the care. I only have to worry about fulfilling my obligations, not whether my output will be deemed worthy of tenure. I work a nine-month contract. Although it is unusual to be away from work or the office over the summer, I am not committed to anyone during those months. Those are things I do not take for granted.

Life can change in an instant. Today, for me, it is a brain tumor. For other academics, it might be a difficult pregnancy or a parent with dementia. Tomorrow, it might be a foreclosure, a divorce or a partner with cancer. Regardless of what might arrive and pull you away from work and what is normal to you, I recommend that you resist struggling against the current. Instead, find a way to swim with it, to harness whatever it might have to offer. Fighting against the circumstances of our life — trying to continue full steam ahead despite difficult conditions or illness — does more harm than good. It is exhausting and inefficient. Besides, you never know what you will discover if you begin to approach work and life differently than you did before. If life requires a new normal, I hope you embrace the opportunity to establish one.