Working With Cancer

TomMurphy_240Tom 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!


By Tom Murphy
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!
Stand Up to Cancer blog
September 19, 2012