First, my doctor told me the variety of breast cancer I have, triple negative, is more aggressive, harder to treat and more likely to return than other types.
Then I found out the pain in my neck that had developed the weekend before was not, in fact, because I slept wrong, but was a swollen lymph node pushing up under my collarbone, indicating the disease had already spread beyond my chest.
Later, a genetic test would reveal the BRCA1 gene mutation that had been hiding in my DNA all my life, like a ticking time bomb.
Those weeks of terror are not unlike the news cycle we are all living in now.
Every day reveals new horrors and challenges brought on by the spread of COVID-19. As time passes, we find out someone else from our overlapping social circles has it, or has died from it. Much like the cancer support groups I joined after my diagnosis, the attendance in our daily lives is slowly decreasing.
How the JSK Fellowship is teaching me to learn to lean on others
The last year has turned my life upside down in so many ways. The JSK fellowship gave me the time, space and perspective to find out what I want to do with my life and my career. It gave me a home and a community when I felt adrift. And more recently, the fellowship has given me a protective cocoon during what has been one of the hardest times of my life.
Nothing could have prepared me for April 1, 2019. As a journalist, I’ve always hated the carelessness of April Fool’s Day and the hoaxes it inevitably spawns. In 2014, I lost my job on this day. This year on this day, I found out I have cancer.
It felt almost Shakespearean. The heroine is on top of the world, confident of her life and its direction, only to be felled by a major setback at what should have been her time of triumph. While it is never a good time to find out something like this, I’m lucky it came at a time when I have had so much support. All I had to do was learn to take it.
I’ve never been good at leaning on others. I hate asking for favors, but I love fulfilling them (blame my Ohio Methodist upbringing). For the past several years, I followed the advice of many a management book and “faked it until I made it” and part of that was also pretending I never needed help along the way. Admitting vulnerability and weakness was not an option, or so I thought. I’ve learned in my time at Stanford to embrace my vulnerability in the workplace, but I wasn’t prepared to have to do so in my personal life.
But then April 1st came.
At first, I tried to stay my usual self. Less than an hour after my diagnosis, I got on the phone in my doctor’s parking lot to interview for two different jobs. Then I had to call my mom and tell her the news. Looking back, I can’t decide if that chain of events was possible due to toughness, denial – or outright insanity.
My first instinct was to hide it, not only from all of my friends back East, but also the people who see me every day at Stanford. I didn’t want anyone to see my eventual deterioration. It quickly became evident that I couldn’t entirely keep my illness to myself. How do you reasonably answer a question like, “How are you?” without lying?
When I finally told the other JSK fellows, I felt a sense of relief I hadn’t expected. It didn’t feel like a defeat, it felt like a weight had been lifted. After the initial hugs and promises of support, my friends in fellowship really showed up for me in a ways I didn’t know I needed. In fact, I was a little embarrassed at first, to accept it.
They started delivering dinner to my house every day to take the load off my supportive and overworked husband. They offered to run errands and rides to where I needed to go. They’ve given me excuses to bail on things I didn’t feel like doing and taken notes in classes I had to miss due to my appointments. Within our circle, we can laugh at the absurdity of what I’m dealing with, whether that’s trying on hilarious wigs in pursuit of the one that’ll make me feel most normal or taking advantage of my newly minted designated driver status. They even all got temporary tattoos in homage to the one on my right arm reading: More. I have never been so touched.
Above all, my fellowship group has given me the confidence to keep dreaming and planning for my future, despite cancer being an unavoidable part of it. To many people in my life, my day-to-day health and status as a patient is an all-consuming aspect of our relationship. I’m encouraged not to worry about what I have to do, to just focus on getting better and let the future happen later, when this is all over.
But that’s not me. The other fellows know it and didn’t let me forget it.
I’m taking on the future I want regardless of what cancer has planned. I can learn to lean on my friends and colleagues, to ask for help when I need it and take time off (and naps) without guilt or fear of looking weak. I will take a new job and give the best of myself despite the fact that I’m sometimes tired, nauseous and have no hair of my own anymore.
As Sheryl Sandberg said in her 2017 commencement speech at Virginia Tech, “There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on… If you are there for your friends and let them be there for you…that won’t just make you more resilient, it’ll help you lead a deeper and more meaningful life.”
As much as it dominates my life right now, I can’t afford to let 2019 be my lost cancer year. This is the year of completing my work on disinformation and trust via Project Disconnect. It’s my year of establishing new lifelong friendships through this program. It’s my year for finding myself.
Thanks to JSK, 2019 is my year for new beginnings.
When first read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in high school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Thompson’s distinctive voice and writing style leapt off the page no matter what the subject matter – there was simply no mistaking you were reading one of his stories. His personal story — of a boy from Kentucky making it into some of the best publications in the world — spoke to me too. His success was based on ability and scrappiness alone.
When Thompson committed suicide in 2005, it was the first time I ever cried over the death of someone I’d never met. Yesterday was the second.
David Carr, in my opinion the greatest writer working in the business, died on Feb. 12 after collapsing in the newsroom of the New York Times.
David Carr portrait from Wendy Macnaughton, shared on Twitter via @wendymac
Like Thompson, Carr had an incredibly distinctive style — in writing and speaking — that set his work above anyone’s on the media beat or elsewhere. There was no mistaking that Carr voice. I remember one time I was reading an in-flight magazine, some one-page Q&A with a celebrity, and three paragraphs in I said to myself, “Is David Carr writing this? Surely not…” It was. Of course it was.
In watching the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times”, I was enamored with Carr’s personality, which I had never seen on video before. That drove me to read his memoir, “The Night of the Gun“, which I think should be required reading for any aspiring journalist.
Carr wasn’t polished, he didn’t have a prestigious background and, like me, he was from “flyover country” (in his case, Minnesota). Throughout his early professional life, he had been his own worst enemy, struggling for years with drug addiction. He overcame himself, outran his past and ended up writing some amazing stories and generating a thousand quotable quotes.
That someone as imperfect as Carr could, based on the power of his talent alone, end up working — and thriving — in the newsroom of the New York Times is proof that success is possible for any of us.
If Thompson was the driver for me to get into this industry and the fire behind my early years, Carr was the inspiration for the journalist I wanted to grow into. He was crazy-smart and could be very cutting, but he was witty and funny and kind in all the right ways and all the right times. We’d all love to be remembered that way.
“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
I’m grateful the New York Times took a chance on journalist who was flawed and amazing and oh-so-worth-it. I’m grateful to still be a part of an industry where survivors are all holding on for dear life. I’m grateful for the daily miracle of news.
So I’ve been going through something of a journalistic identity crisis lately that’s put me in a real malaise about the industry at large and my own career. So if you’ll let me get a little personal for a post, I could use some help crafting a useful new job that could help my newsroom – and help my future a little bit too.
After seeing just about every low point of staff morale and picking up more tasks seemingly every day – I’m not really sure how to describe what I do anymore or see what could possibly come next in my career path. (I used to have a plan – but it’s pretty much moot now.)
I have my annual review coming up at work and I hope to craft a new job description for myself. Problem is, I’m no longer sure what I’m best suited for or what skills might be most useful for my newspaper or any other media organization.
Right now, my business cards still say Social Media Editor. While I like keeping the title so it sounds like I have a really innovative and cool job, my paper really can’t afford to have a position like that of, say, Robert Quigley in Austin. (After reading about the cool stuff he gets to do all day seemingly without any day-to-day news constraints, I wonder what paper can.)
So here’s what I’d like to know from you:
What kind of non-reporting journalist would most benefit you as a news consumer? What would you like to see a local news outlet do differently (that could realistically be achieved by one person)?
If you work in journalism, what skills are missing from your organization? What kind of online position would help the newsroom at large?