October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. By night I am a personal finance blogger, but by day I am an oncology psychologist. I have devoted the past 15 years of my life to helping people who are living with cancer cope with their physical and emotional suffering and improve their quality of life. Although I do strive for financial independence, I’m not planning to retire early. Many people ask me how I do what I do. This is the story of why I do what I do.
This post is dedicated to two influential people in my life. I am honored to have been loved by my cousin Alyson and my step-mother Debbie.
We all know that no one goes into mental health for the money. I’m often asked what drew me into this profession. I previously shared a little bit about my story as it related to paying off my student loan debt within three years of graduating. Here’s the story of how I became an oncology psychologist.
What are you going to do with a Philosophy degree?
In college I majored in philosophy. “What are you going to do with a philosophy degree?” I remember an attorney that I worked for during college ask me. “How are you going to support yourself?”
I recall looking at him and saying, “I’m supporting myself now. I know that I don’t have kids or a mortgage, but I’m getting by as a part-time file clerk.” That was one of my earliest memories of realizing the importance of keeping my expenses low.
But he was right. What was I going to do with a philosophy degree? My favorite classes were those on Formal Logic (useful for writing stats syntax), Ethics (I now serve on my facility’s Ethics Consultation Committee), and a class I took on Sociology of Death, Dying, and Living (I am also the psychologist for our Hospice unit).
So I Tried Psychology
My mother was majoring in I/O Psychology and suggested I give psych a try. I found it interesting that every Intro Psych course started out by discussing philosophers. Psychologists applied scientific testing to philosophical constructs. I was hooked! So I double-majored in philosophy and psychology.
Then I read about David Spiegel’s study that found women with metastatic breast cancer who participated in supportive-expressive group therapy lived longer than those in a waitlist control.
I was fascinated by the idea that a psychosocial intervention could improve quality of life, and possibly physical functioning, among cancer patients. (Subsequent studies were unable to replicate the longevity findings, but did find improvements in quality of life.)
Learning more about what it would take to become a psychologist, I volunteered in various research labs. One of those labs was with my first mentor, who held a position with a comprehensive cancer center.
He took a chance on me and served as a mentor for my Honors Thesis, which led to my first publication (with his help, of course). After I graduated, he hired me to work as a lab manager while I continued to strengthen my CV in preparation for grad school.
It was while I was working at the cancer center that my beautiful cousin Alyson was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer. It was the day after I sent off my grad school application that we received the news of her diagnosis. She would be treated at the same cancer center where I was working.
Should I go to grad school? Could I put it off another year to stay with her as she went through treatment? It was a difficult decision, but Alyson encouraged me to go.
I am forever grateful to have been accepted to my top choice for a graduate program. It was only a 5-hour drive from my hometown and I would be mentored by rock stars in the field of psycho-oncology.
During graduate school, I worked 5 years as a Research Assistant on a study of a stress management intervention for women with breast cancer.
I read books and went to conferences where I met leaders in the field. I was inspired by psychologists such as Mike Antoni, Tom Brandon, Paul Jacobsen, and Barbara Anderson and psychiatrists including Jimmie Holland, David Spiegel, Irvin Yalom and Viktor Frankl, to name a few.
Helping other people was an important part of dealing with my own sadness. I learned early in my career how to effectively manage my own emotions so that I can keep the focus on my patients.
I cried a lot during my first two years of grad school. More than I can ever remember crying before or after.
It was half way through my second year when I received a call. It was Alyson. She told me that her doctors said that they have done all they could do. After two years of undergoing treatments and surgeries, she had given it her best fight. She told me that she was ready to go.
I will always remember that call. I told her “that’s okay.”* I let her know that I loved her and that I knew she didn’t want to leave us, but it was her time. And that was okay.
*I didn’t realize until later in my career how important it was that I was able to meet her at her level of hope.
I made it back home in time to say good-bye. Alyson had just turned 21 years old.
After the funeral, I returned to grad school. I threw myself into my work. At the time, my research was with interventions for breast cancer patients, my practicum placement was working with palliative care patients. I felt a level of empathy for my patients and their families that I would not have truly known had I not gone through my own loss. I was honored to have been there for them their some of the most difficult times in their lives.
From Research Scientist to Clinician
After graduating, I accepted my dream fellowship in behavioral oncology at the same cancer center where Alyson was treated. I wore a lab coat and carried a clip board (as any scientist would) as I evaluated the effects of psychosocial interventions on quality of life among people being treated for cancer.
After co-authoring 30 peer-reviewed articles, I realized that research didn’t give me the sense of meaning I needed in my life.
I found myself thinking about what score my grant received, how many people were citing my work, and what my personal “impact factor” was. But I didn’t feel I was really impacting others.
Yes, research positions can pay a lot more. But clinical work gave me a sense of meaning.
Today, I am a clinical psychologist specializing in oncology, palliative care, and hospice at a hospital with an APA-accredited internship and post-doctoral training program.
My trainees often ask about what it is like to devote my career to serving this population. But I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
I stand by people’s sides during their most difficult days. I am able to meet them at their level of hope. Even though I cannot take away their pain, I do my best to alleviate their physical and emotional suffering. Per the work of Viktor Frankl, I help my patients realize their own meaning.
More Devastating News
A few years ago, my beloved step-mother was diagnosed with cancer. I remember on Easter she told us what she was not feeling well and that she was having a hard time getting an appointment to see a doctor. On Mother’s Day, she canceled our plans because she had finally been seen and received her diagnosis. By the time it was discovered, it had already spread. She died the Friday before Thanksgiving. Her funeral, coincidentally, was on Alyson’s birthday.
I told my supervisor that I didn’t know how much time I would need off work. I anticipated that it would be least a couple of weeks before I felt fit to return to my position. Surprisingly, I was ready and eager to be back at work the week after Thanksgiving. To help people.
From Clinician to Personal Finance Blogger
When people hear I have a blog, they often assume it’s about psycho-oncology. I love my job! But as part of my self-care, when I get home I need think about other things. I joked with my friend Jillian that “At night I’d rather write about all the stuff I refuse to buy my kids.”
So now you know a little more about what led me to be a psychologist. I’ve tried working in other areas of psychology, but haven’t felt the same fulfillment as I do when I am helping people who are living with cancer.
Being a mental health professional can be emotionally taxing work.
To avoid burn out, specialize in a job you are passionate about. But it’s also important pay off your debt so that you walk into work every day choosing to be there, not because of the golden handcuffs.
Even if I were to leave my position, chances are I would continue to work in this area. That’s the purpose of the FIRE movement (Financial Independence Retire Early). To be free to do what you love – what you’re passionate about – what fulfills you. I feel blessed to have found that in my occupation as an oncology psychologist.
If money were not an issue, what would your life’s work be?