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How to magically flip failure on its head after cancer

By Ryan Blenkiron

Never mind figuring out my “new normal,” the last 22 months since ringing the remission gong have been one eye-opening life concept after another.

Take, for instance, returning to work — one of my first major forays into the after-cancer abyss.

Like so many other facets of my life, work was suddenly a hot potato I had to hand off when I received my stage IV non-Hodgkin Lymphoma diagnosis. Then, once I crossed the treatment finish line, it was time for my long-term disability insurance provider to persistently get me back there.

At that point, it had only been nine months since I left my job behind to fend off death with six rounds of R-CHOP chemotherapy. Treatment left me feeling like a shell of what was, and chemo brain was in full force. I was struggling to make sense of more than a few sentences at a time, or simply to stay more focused than a toddler. And, much like a two-year-old, I still needed a long midday siesta to keep synapses firing.

I came from being a rising corporate star in a managing position and I couldn’t fathom returning to the responsibilities of the title; all of the multitasking, conversation, and coaching required felt impossible to face. Even after several weeks of work-hardening occupational therapy, my inability to memorize and recite back a four-digit number was starting to scare me.

For my whole life, I relied on my body’s capacity. I felt like a somebody because I could handle absolutely anything that came my way. I heavily identified with the achievements I had made, especially career-wise.

Was it all gone? Would I regain my cognition and energy? Was I doomed to fail where I always succeeded? Am I failure and that’s that? I grieved so deeply over this. I couldn’t even explain it properly to others; it was lonely and I felt lost.

Success is what you make it.

Yes, it’s that simple. The hard part is landing there with all of your heart.

Cancer really fucks with your normal. Little by little, I learned new survival skills a 30-something never expects to learn, like how to ration energy or prioritize efforts. In this new way of taking care of myself, I started inwardly asking things I’d never thought to ask before, like, “if it’s only going to take me five minutes and it will be good enough, why give it more than five minutes?” I started giving myself permission to do good enough or not at all if it meant keeping more of my life for myself.

So when cancer fucked with my success/failure identity, I was already primed to ask even bigger questions, like, “What does it matter that I have ‘manager’ in my title? Where did I get that idea from?” or “Why does it bother me to have to take a smaller, simpler role for less money?”

Most of the answers basically proved I hung my identity on what everyone and everything else defined as success. Holy shit.

I felt a bit of grief for a while, and it was surprisingly hard to completely let go of the construct I had built for myself about what it meant to be successful. Mostly I feel free now. I have redefined success in a way that it would take a lot to fail. It’s not even centered around work. If I can answer the question “Am I spending time on the things that feed me” with “yes” at any given time, I am succeeding.

I have changed jobs three times since returning to work, each time I gave more back to myself and my family, and accepted there are things I am not willing to ration anymore. Things are by no means perfectly settled or lined up. I have done a lot of work to get here, and the journey is ongoing. The point is, while by my past standards I am failing all over the place, I don’t feel defeated at all. Failure is relative to the definition of success. The magic is we can make that definition into anything we want.


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