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Pink cancer ribbon with butterfly on the tie spot

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On Jan. 19, 2023, four days into the spring semester, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, more commonly known as breast cancer. I had recently earned tenure at a state liberal arts university, and I could finally breathe. I finished a long day of teaching and rushed to the store to buy some last-minute items for my son’s birthday.

On my drive home, I received a phone call from the radiologist. She gave me my diagnosis. The only details I remember are that she biopsied three places and all three tested positive for cancer. As she talked, I thought about how I would tell my family, how this would impact my children and how I could continue the spring semester. The phone call and diagnosis were extremely inconvenient.

This catastrophic and life-altering diagnosis meant that I also had to make difficult decisions about my work. Would I, and should I, continue teaching during treatment? Should I tell my students? Should I tell the dean? My colleagues? Should I talk to someone in Human Resources first? If so, when? Those questions and the constant stress associated with them caused me to reflect on the potential perfection associated with leave.

When my daughter was born in January 2020, I was three years into the tenure process. Academic friends and colleagues had advised me on how to have the perfect academic baby, born in late May or early June so I could return in September. I was never fortunate enough to have the perfect academic baby; both my children were born in January. However, despite missing the window of perceived perfect timing, I always thought that timing was perfect, because with the summer and a full semester of leave, I spent eight months on maternity leave with both my children.

Much like the inconvenience of pregnancy in academia, cancer weighed heavily on my mind. A week after my diagnosis, with a chaotic and traumatized brain, I asked my husband, “What’s the perfect academic cancer?” My husband, confused, asked for extended context. I continued, not expecting answers and knowing that, although I desperately wanted to, I could not change my situation. “Would a summer diagnosis be best, so I could address the shock without having to stand in front of hundreds of students? Would perfection mean a fall diagnosis, so I could have treatment for two semesters and then enjoy summer before returning to work?”

This thought of the perfect academic cancer persisted as I let people know about my diagnosis. I primarily shared the news with colleagues to escape service obligations that I could no longer fulfill.

When a new faculty member asked for a meeting regarding her research and publishing, I was happy to help. Mentoring has always been important to me, and offering advice took my mind off dying and leaving my children. After discussing her research, she asked if I was planning on attending an upcoming professional conference. I have chaired a track for the conference for several years, and instead of simply saying no, I told her about my diagnosis. I’m not sure what I was expecting—it was my first catastrophic diagnosis, and I did not anticipate the strange and sometimes rather insensitive comments I would receive. My colleague immediately suggested collaborating on a study she tentatively called “The Answer Is Cancer.” She asked if I’d be interested in examining how individuals feel when they are told they have cancer. I was shocked and I wanted to scream, but I simply said, “Only in higher education do you receive a cancer diagnosis and people give you more work to do.”

At that moment, despite the working title of my colleague’s study, I realized cancer is absolutely not the answer and there is no perfect academic cancer. Cancer is as imperfect as it gets. With a few exceptions, I learned I was not going to receive the solace I needed from others—not because they didn’t care, but rather because they didn’t know what to say. I knew I had to find my own resources to help my family navigate our journey.

I found almost nothing on how to cope with a cancer diagnosis in academia. Perhaps that’s because academics compartmentalize our lives into personal and professional categories. Maybe it’s because academics don’t talk about weaknesses, our shortcomings—much less, as in my case, our breasts. Academics are often silent about our struggles in order to present the appearance of perfection, especially women in the academy, as the structure of an academic career often requires us to silence our personal lives. Telling my colleagues about my diagnosis made me feel vulnerable.

I’ve also learned, however, that just as there is no perfect cancer, there is no perfect academic or academic career. Despite the negatives of my cancer diagnosis, I have found joy in releasing the illusion of perfection in the academy. Here are some other lessons that I’ve learned.

Don’t let your career keep you from focusing on your health. As members of the academy, especially those of us seeking tenure, we often neglect our health and well-being to cope with research, teaching and service. Researchers have started to examine the mental and physical health of faculty members in greater detail in the wake of COVID-19, the great resignation and newfound attention on faculty burnout. The demands of the academy on nontenured faculty can disturb work-life balance, increase job burnout and stress, and impact healthy lifestyle choices, leading to reductions in physical and mental well-being.

Regardless of your position on the tenure track, prioritize your health. Embarrassingly, despite my family history of breast cancer, I did not get a mammogram for three years. Several factors contributed to this, including having a baby, a global pandemic and the last three years of my tenure process. Not making time for my health resulted in missing almost a year of work, research and teaching, which could result in lower pay and promotion in the future. Early detection is key. As wellness educator Joyce Sunada warned, “If you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.”

Take leave if you want to, and make the most of it if you do. Three days after my diagnosis, I spoke to a breast cancer survivor at my university. She had survived twice and was proud that despite chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatment, she never missed a day of work. I asked her how I could balance teaching, research, service and family while traveling for treatment. She responded that I worried too much. Agitated, I explained that I’d only been diagnosed three days earlier, and I have a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old, so of course I was worried. Another colleague also worked through her breast cancer treatment while in a support staff position. Those stories caused me to question my decision to take extended medical leave during treatment. Even as I write this, eight months into chemotherapy, I question whether colleagues judge me for taking leave while others continued working.

Although such conversations with cancer survivors were intended to help, many left me stressed as I questioned my own decisions. I realized that although they had similar diagnoses and experiences to mine, no two cancer diagnoses or experiences are truly the same. Each person must choose the best path for them. For some, continuing to work is the best option for financial reasons or as a distraction. For others, a leave of absence is necessary to focus on treatment.

Choose a plan that is best for you and your family, and trust your doctors and health-care team. If you take medical leave, relax, breathe and focus on your health and treatment. Often, faculty members take leave but still check email, conduct research or work on service-based projects. While some need those distractions during treatment, consider decompressing and focusing on what relaxes you and brings you joy.

Also, although rest is important, this may be a great time to try something new or to reconnect with something you love. I found joy in taking a virtual writing class, which helped me find a creative way to relieve stress.

Be willing to relinquish control. The feeling of control can offer a sense of predictability, stability and order. Nothing can make you feel more uncertain and out of control than a cancer diagnosis. After my diagnosis, I found it difficult to let others help. I wanted to hide until I felt like myself again.

People asked multiple times if they could drive me to chemo, but I preferred to go with my husband. People asked us about meals, but we really did not need another casserole. (A cancer diagnosis makes everyone want to give you a casserole.) In those early days, I didn’t know what I needed, and this attention was overwhelming. I was not ready to discuss my diagnosis, as every call meant discussing cancer.

As treatment progressed, however, I realized the importance of involving others. We were spending a great deal on gas to drive to and from appointments, so about three months in, I told a friend that we could use gas cards to help with expenses. I also found solace in a trusted family member who watched our kids during my chemo so my husband could come with me. Don’t be afraid to set clear boundaries, but when you’re ready, let others help if you need them.

Don’t be afraid to get personal or be transparent (but don’t feel you have to). After my diagnosis, I questioned whether I wanted to tell others, how much to tell and whom I should tell. I was teaching three classes at the time, and I let my students know a few weeks before I went on leave. I have always been transparent, and I felt it was easier for other people to accept change if they were part of the process.

In fact, I used my diagnosis as a teaching opportunity. The support and love from my students were overwhelming, and that was key in those first few weeks.

Many find their cancer journey inspiring to others and want to post online updates. I found it easier to speak about my diagnosis off-line. I also found comfort in groups like Unite for Her and Sharsheret, nonprofits that offer ovarian and breast cancer support services, as well as in attending fitness classes and group meetings at my local Gilda’s Club. Such environments let me show up as I am—even with no hair, eyebrows or eyelashes—and still feel supported and comfortable.

Share as you feel comfortable, but don’t feel pressured to do so. There is a vulnerability in sharing your cancer diagnosis with others. Delay a decision, if necessary, to avoid sharing too much or too soon, and communicate in a way that helps you heal.

Realize you won’t be the same after your diagnosis and treatment (which may be good). As I write this, I am in the last few weeks of chemotherapy, with a long road of surgery, radiation and recovery ahead. I am not the same person I was before my diagnosis. My priorities and goals have shifted, allowing me to reconsider my purpose and calling. Although I certainly did not ask or want to be on this journey, my cancer diagnosis is shaping and changing me into a more empathetic, compassionate and present person.

As Stephen Hawking noted, “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist … Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.” Although catastrophically imperfect, no event has had a greater impact on my teaching, research and desire to serve than my diagnosis. Abandoning the notion of perfection and allowing room for imperfection can provide opportunity for growth and purpose as an academic and a human being.

Joy Jones-Carmack is associate professor of business administration at Stockton University and a consultant with expertise in leadership and communication development.

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