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Working With Cancer

Posted on September 19, 2012, 11:20 AM
Working With Cancer

by Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy left corporate America in 2002 (he had been Co-COO at two telecom companies) to start his own management and technical consulting company. Eight years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Here, Tom shares five of his personal tips for people who – out of necessity or a refusal to let cancer dictate their lives – want to continue working through their cancer treatment. Note that while these tips worked for Tom, you should be sure to consult with your doctor before pursuing any sort of physically or mentally strenuous activities during treatment.

Work with a harsh reality.
Let’s get the hardest thing out of the way first. Leading up to my lung surgery, I spent the majority of my time getting my business in order. By the time I went under the knife, there were no open items on my to-do list, nothing that could burden anyone else should I take a turn for the worse. I did not want my wife or family to have to close up the company records in the event things went wrong. The fact that cancer could take you away quicker than expected is tough to acknowledge, but it’s vital you do so. 

Work with your employer.
Shortly after doctors removed my lung’s right upper lobe, I was back in action. For nearly six months, I participated in a clinical low-toxicity targeted epigenetic trial funded by Stand Up To Cancer at The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. Over the course of my treatment, fatigue, nausea, and other lovely side effects became a part of my life. Fortunately, based on my treatment schedule, I was able to predict when many of these side effects would hit.

I worked with my clients/employers to create a schedule that allowed me to work when I was well and rest when I wasn’t. I was fortunate in that they were very understanding of my needs. One company head would schedule our calls for 5 or 6 AM so we could touch base as I was heading out the door for treatment. Another CEO would regularly call to check in and ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard.

Of course, this required communicating about an illness that some people want to keep to themselves and some others simply do not want to hear about. And even after I did communicate my condition, my clients could have said “no” and looked for someone else to do the job. But cancer is a disease that touches so many lives, that’s taken so much from so many of us, that in my experience a clear and honest conversation about expectations is all it takes for both sides to find a solution that works.

Work with your doctor.
Like my employer, the doctors and staff at Johns Hopkins were generously cooperative in planning my treatment schedule. They worked with me, planning my visits for early mornings to leave the afternoon open for business. Again, honest dialogue about goals and expectations was the key. 

Work with yourself.
Cancer takes a lot out of you – physically, mentally, and spiritually. In a sense, I lived in two worlds. One was the new world: cancer treatment, and the unknown. The second, the world I had spent 35 years in, and greatly enjoyed working in, provided me normalcy and enjoyment.

That said, one of the more difficult things is learning when to take yourself out of the game entirely, at least for a while. I learned this the hard way, when I double-paid two personal bills on subsequent days due to my treatment haze. The credit card company must have been thrilled to receive the same $5,100 check twice. I also had to drop some unpaid advisory roles and activities I had been involved with for several startups being launched by close friends. I felt bad about dropping these, but I could not do everything I wanted to do, and it was not fair to them, my employers, or the clinical trial results for me to continue.

I’ve been writing about my “work”; but maybe the better word is “vocation.” It’s important you do your best to keep doing whatever it is you are called to do. Maybe it’s a job, maybe it’s volunteering, maybe it’s painting. Whatever it is that gives you satisfaction, do everything you can to keep it up. In addition to my career, I maintained my exercise routine as best I could. It gave my body the strength it needed to push through the debilitating effects of treatment, and, like my job, it was a way to focus on a tangible, rewarding goal. I also continued to volunteer as a guardian for Honor Flight – an organization dedicated to honoring our World War II veterans by transporting them to the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Of course, I couldn’t have done any of this on my own. Which brings me to the last and most important part:

Work with your community of loved ones.
My wife, Mary Jo, was crucial to my well-being. She’d have the good sense to tell me when it was time to put my work down, to get some rest or relaxation. She could see when I was overextending and overreaching, even though I thought I still had plenty of gas in the tank. More than that, she gave me love.

No amount of work or exercise can get you through cancer on your own. You need the strength of love. Where you draw that strength from is up to you. It could be from your partner, it could be from your family, your friends, coworkers, a cancer support group, a spiritual community, an online community… that’s up to you. Now, get to work! 

Tom Murphy was born in Philadelphia, PA (go Eagles!) in 1952. While serving as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps from 1970-76 on active duty, he married Mary Jo (COLE) Murphy in 1975. After his honorable discharge, Tom received his BS from the University of Maryland 1981 and an MBA from Mount St. Mary’s in 1990, while working full time in the telecom, internet, and software industries. Self-employed since 2002, Tom has two children: Steve Murphy, married to Dawn, and Chrissy Alexander, married to Chris. He is expecting his first grandchild any day now!

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Posted by Karen | September 19, 2012 12:53 PM

Tom, your letter was very moving since my boyfriend has been diagnosed with rectal/colon cancer last month. He has been a mechanic all his life and can not work in the bays anymore, needs to be at the desk and misses it sooooo much. I will pass your letter onto him so he can read it himself and hope it helps him. He will be going for his first chemo treatment next Wednesday and will then know what everyone else is going through. This cancer has opened his eyes. Even the smallest ache or pain should be checked out if it continues to bother you, don’t let it linger, he did and found out it was cancer. So everyone get checked out!!! Have those colonoscopies done when you reach 50, PLEASE!!!!

Posted by Andrew Budek-Schmeisser | September 19, 2012 1:37 PM

You’re an inspiration - and we thank you for sharing this experience.

I’ve found that for me, the best strategy has been to attack into the ambush - run my life at the best possible speed, and not give in on anything.

I may not make it but I’ll leave one hell of a fight as a memory.

Semper Fi!

Posted by Tina Capizzi | September 21, 2012 6:14 PM

Cancer took be by surprise. After receiving an award at work I got back to my deck an liquid came gushing out. I ran to the lady’s room found out I was hemorrhaging. I had no insurance so I had to find a free clinic.  The clinic sent me to another clinic who took a biopsy with plastic parts an interns. The bleeding got so bad I went to the local ER was there for 13 hours.  The MRI found a tumor so large the technician said she never saw anything that big in her life. They where going to admit me on an emergency bases but when they found out I had no insurance they threw me out of the hospital, no wheel chair nothing except a few pages on how maybe I could find help via the United Way.
Three days later they began to desperately try to find me. Once we connected I was admitted an told I had maybe just a few months to live the cancer was stag four with mets.My one doctor did have faith in me and began treatments. I have by God’s grace overcome up to this point in time.  I finally got on Medicare but I sit here alone every day, not able to drive with no friends to talk to or go places with. It is scarey an lonely. I have met people with cancer but they don’t seem to want to be friends. How does one deal with this alone? I have my son and daughter but how does one find support groups or friends?

Posted by graeme s smith | October 07, 2012 4:53 PM

hello Tina
this is so sad
how can a great nation like yours not look after its own people?
here in new zealand we have free public health so when i got thyriod cancer i was straight into the system which includes social support systems.  i feel so lucky.  there must be cancer support systems there in America surely? can you go through your citizen advice organisations or one of the major churches, red cross, salvation army?
love and support

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