One of the phrases most commonly associated with cancer is ‘life’s too short’. Then there’s ‘live every day as if it’s your last,’ ‘appreciate the little things’ and ‘what would you do if you weren’t afraid?’ While I absolutely agree with all of the above, I think that anyone who is living with, or has had, cancer will tell you that in practice they aren’t always possible.

When I had cancer, I wrote a list of all the places I’d visit and the goals I wanted to achieve after my treatment. Seven years on, I am fortunate enough to have ticked many things off that list. I took a ‘year out’ after my treatment and went back to university to get the Masters degree I’d always wanted. I went travelling, got 12 hours sleep a night and started to write a book. But if I’d stopped working the day I got cancer to live a stress-free life, I wouldn’t have been able to support myself.

So I went back to work. And, as much as I tried to avoid the levels of job-related stress that I believe contributed to my cancer in the first place, it wasn’t always possible. Like many people, I worked long hours and took on an increasingly extensive schedule involving late nights, long-haul travel and jetlag. If I’d hated my job, I would have quit without question, but I loved it. It’s just that I had other ambitions: to go freelance, to manage my own time, to finish writing my book*.

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Actually at work, September 2018 in Sonoma County, California (Portrait by Sara Beth Turner)

At the back of my mind there was one recurring niggle: if I am diagnosed with secondary cancer (which has happened to far too many of my friends) then will I wish I had gone freelance sooner? The answer, every single time, was yes. And yet holding me back were concerns that by quitting my job I might stunt my reputation and damage my career. I would miss out on trips and opportunities that were dangling like a carrot – the journalist’s equivalent of the banker’s bonus. So I stuck it out, just for one more year, then one more year, then one more year after that.

One thing I’ve learned is that fear often comes from other people. ‘How will you make money?’ ‘Won’t you get lonely?’ ‘Why don’t you stay just a little longer while you decide?’ It’s easy to look at other people’s lives and be put off doing what you know is right for you. But when I silenced the other voices and just listened to my own, I realised it was time to quit. So I left my *amazing* job after five years and, from the very first day, I knew it was the best decision I ever made.

I created the office space I’d always dreamed of – it’s a five-second commute from my bed and my kitchen, the dress code is pretty lax and I don’t have to argue with anyone over the air conditioning. Oh, and my new colleagues are pretty chill.

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Office bants

I got off relatively scot-free from the side effects of tamoxifen but I do suffer from fatigue. I sleep 10 hours a night and there are days of the month when I simply can’t get out of bed. For years I forced myself to get up and do a long commute when my body said no, and it was one of the reasons for quitting.

I no longer have to get up at the crack of dawn, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost discipline. Working for myself, I’m as motivated as I’ve ever been, because I have to be. It’s just that I can hustle from 11am to 9pm if I like – no one is tying me to strict hours. I can go to the gym or the post office or my hospital appointments in the middle of the day. I hope we get to the point where all employers trust their staff to work wherever they want to work (within reason) as long as they get the job done.

I’m not saying everyone should quit their job – they shouldn’t. And I’m not saying treat every day like it’s your last – I, for one, would be lying under a pile of cats, comatose from eating the biggest ever Sunday roast, and that just wouldn’t do. But do listen to the voice in your head, and if it’s telling you time after time there’s something you really want to do, then don’t put off it for tomorrow. Tomorrow might never come.

Curtis Brown June 2019

The reception area at C&W / Curtis Brown

*A little update on the book:

Well, I finished writing it – it took me three and a half years to get to that stage and was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done. Buuuuuuut… I am incredibly excited to reveal that I just signed with an amazing literary agent at C&W in London. It’s just another step in a long process, but fingers crossed it works out. I can’t wait for the day my novel is on the shelf alongside these amazing authors!