Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0705 - Job search, the next big obstacle

Life is full of irony.

On Sunday, I wrote about one of the best series on television these days, Californication, and reflected on the nature of good writing, blogging or otherwise. Imagine my surprise yesterday when following an interesting Google Alert which led me to the stupid cancer blog to be greeted by the image of one of the characters of the TV series, Evan Handler (Charlie), an actor probably better known for his role on "Sex and the City".

Prior to following the link and the subsequent permalink to the Jobs section of The New York Times to an article titled "For Cancer Survivors, a Job Hunt Can Be the Next Big Obstacle", I'd had no idea that Evan Handler was a leukemia survivor or that his illness has caused him career difficulties (his autobiographical Time On Fire: My Comedy of Terrors documents his battle with cancer and the effect his cancer had on his career).

Sure, it had occurred to me that other cancer survivors wondered what long-term impact their illness had on their careers, but I honestly hadn't spent much time pondering all the implications for my own career. Immediately after returning to work following my own treatment, it became apparent that things had changed, but I was happy simply to be working again. It seemed self-indulgent for me to attribute a sense of diminishing career opportunities to my battle with cancer.

Then, three weeks after getting my discharge papers from my medical oncologist at the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre, I became another statistic of "downsizing" in the Canadian manufacturing sector, just about the only sector in Canada assured of producing layoffs in an otherwise prosperous economy (see Warren Lovely's interesting article Canada: America's Dance Partner No More in the CIBC World Markets newsletter article for 15-Oct-2007).

Those "self-indulgent" thoughts boomeranged right back at me.

It seems I'm not alone. There are as many as 10 million cancer survivors in the United States, many of whom have had their careers interrupted (see I'm Too Young For This! Cancer Foundation For Young Adults for just one example of burgeoning self-help initiatives) and now actively wondering what comes next in their career path.

Most companies are doing the right thing. Certainly any company that I would want to work for would have a standard of compassion and a strong realization that survivors can be among the best human resource investments they might ever make. Now, though, I need to concentrate almost exclusively on getting from here to there.

Last night, we held our first IT Careers Night at the Waterloo Wellington IT Professionals user group. We held a guided discussion about the job market, certification, career paths, resume writing, and recruiting. We didn't discuss bouncing back from a battle with cancer. But it certainly occurred to me that such a topic was a pertinent aspect of any reflection on an unwanted journey, be it a journey with cancer or career interruption.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Write Stuff - Californication

If you've ever watched Californication, you've probably heard references to how blogging is not really writing at all. Hank Moody, the character played by David Duchovny, is stuck. He has writer's block, has succumbed to the "California" lifestyle, screwed up his relationships, and taken on a paying gig doing a blog, rather than following his true muse of novel writing.

In an interview about the series on ShowTime, Duchovny explains why he did the pilot, "I really liked the writing." In that same interview, in explaining Hank Moody's problem, Duchovny says that Hank has "fallen into blogging", a kind of "instant gratification and publishing" - a clear sentiment reflecting the angst of his on-screen character who too believes blogging isn't really writing at all.

Hank is a "walking id", someone who "cannot lie", but always "speaks the truth", no matter how socially inappropriate.

There is one scene from the season finale which "showcases" this character flaw iconically. Hank appears in the room where his former girlfriend Karen waits in the wedding dress she has chosen for her forthcoming marriage to her new, stable and prosperous boyfriend, Bill. Hank, in top form and true to his "I-cannot-tell-a-lie" character says, "Wow...you look incredible...except for the makeup which is a little hookerish...if that's what you're going for, is it?"

She responds anxiously about why it took him so long to arrive and wondering where their daughter is. That is followed by an agitated monologue about how nothing turned out the way it was supposed to. Hank then answers, "All those things that weren't supposed to happen...they happened. What happens next is up to you."

I think Duchovny is right. The show has great writing.

I think Hank and Duchovny are wrong. Blogging isn't just about instant gratification and publishing. At it's best, it's about accepting who we are, rehearsing all the things that weren't supposed to happen, but happened anyway, and then - here's the crucial aspect - deciding what happens next. Like real life and like Hank himself, it's about being a "walking id", telling the truth, no matter what the consequences.

The hard part - deciding what happens next - isn't just a question of freedom and willpower, about merely surmounting difficulties, about courageously scaling the mountain. It's also about determining what cannot happen next, about putting the id on a leash, no matter how short, no matter how fragile.

That's where blogging and the write stuff become identical.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0702 - Good, Good, Good

The unbridled optimism didn't last, of course. The very next day after blogging about the unexpected persistence of optimism, I felt what, in retrospect, was an inevitable mood of uncertainty. Nonetheless, those temporarily meandering moods, those unwelcome reality checks, don't last long.

It helps, of course, to hear from my family physician that my cholesterol levels are down from my last appointment in the spring, that I'm looking good with my weight loss, and that he gave me a discount on photocopying the voluminous medical reports in my cancer treatment file. It helps, too, to splurge on some some new clothes, to have a new cell phone, and to be eagerly waiting for my new portable Dell workstation to arrive. It helps as well to have so many people offering well wishes, providing references, and getting me in contact with tangible opportunities. All these things help.

It helps to be productive with not only the job search, but with the Waterloo Wellington IT Professionals user group, and with contributions to other IT-related endeavors (see my recent technical blog entry). And it really helps to be drawing ever closer to the second anniversary of my initial diagnosis of cancer with a clean bill of health and no evidence of disease!

As my beloved Toronto Raptors announcer, Chuck Swirsky, would say, "It's all good. It's all good."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0693 - One Week In, One Week Away

I'm still one week away from my first consultation with my family physician to review my blood tests, the first meeting after my second release from the regional cancer centre. I know. It's getting a little complicated talking about firsts, seconds, follow ups, and what are increasingly standard medical precautions.

That's very good news. Even with occasional hard-to-take evenings, concerns about my health are receding. I'm losing weight and getting my BMI values back closer to where they should be. Cancer, after all, isn't the only health issue I should be considering. But I'm feeling full of energy and vitality these days. In other words, my health is good.

So, even after one week into my job transition status, and one week away from my consultation with my doctor, I'm feeling confident about everything. The optimism of the first few hours after my termination notice owing to downsizing in the company where I was employed has continued unabated. Sure, I've had some sleepless nights, but it's not from worry so much as excitement about prospects, about the search, about evaluating where I want to go next, about how my social capital will play out in the next few weeks or so, about life in general.

I really don't know if this is normal or not. It's been so long since I've done an active job search that I'm not sure whether my optimism is warranted. But hey, even if it isn't, at least I'm enjoying the ride. The confidence has to make a difference as I get closer to interview situations.

But there's another possibility. Maybe it's experience and the equanimity of my truly unwanted journey coming into play. Once you've stared cancer in the face and survived the encounter, other set backs seem trivial in comparison.

Other people - friends, family, and colleagues - are reflecting the same confidence I feel. That helps too.

In fact, another of the life lessons I've learned is playing out in this new situation; namely, what you put out there comes right back at you. As I wrote to a friend today, life's ups and downs can be spun just like anything else. It's funny actually. I choose to spin my current situation in a very positive light, and surprise, surprise, that's exactly how others are spinning it back.

Friday, October 12, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0687 - It Rains, It Pours

Today has been interesting!

Yesterday, just one day after having my blood chemistry taken since being discharged from the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre, my employment was terminated owing to downsizing. Today, as a result, was the first day in another kind of unwanted journey, a journey of job transitions. But, like I said to family members, "I've had much worse news than this."

Oddly enough, this feeling of calm and cautious optimism lasted from the time of my meeting with my employer through last night and all day today. I don't think I'm compensating, but time will tell. I honestly think that if one has to be on the job market, now is the time.

Dealing with cancer has taught me some important lessons, perhaps chief among them being that it is best to deal with life's contingencies one day at a time, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. I know it sounds trite and obvious, but true nonetheless.

So, why the allusion to raining and pouring? I guess it's a reference to the ambiguities of life. Bad weather is sometimes exactly what we need when we take a longer perspective on things. In my case, being forced to look for a different job may be exactly what I need in my life, a chance to move on and embrace new opportunities and possibilities.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Mixed Member Proportional

How do you actually vote in provincial and federal elections in Canada? If you're anything like me, sometimes you vote for a person, sometimes for the party. But more often than not, I tend to vote strategically for the party that best represents my own views about current issues.

Now in Ontario we're facing a referendum on 10-Oct-2007 in which we can vote for one of two options:

  1. continue exclusively with first-past-the-post election results

  2. continue with first-past-the-post in local ridings as well as a vote for a party

The clear advantage of the mixed member proportional scheme recommended by the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform is this: all our votes for political parties will count, not just the ones for the party representative with the plurality of votes in your particular riding.

Here are some other reasons why MMP makes sense:

  • MMP has multiple-party support in this Ontario provincial election campaign.

  • most democracies modified exclusive FPTP over a century ago

  • all citizens are entitled to representation, not just those who voted for the representative with the highest number of votes

  • most votes cast in any election in Canada, federal or provincial, elect no representative

  • many majority governments are not truly results of majority popular voting (in the current provincial legislature, for example, the Liberals have 70% of the seats with only 46% of the popular vote)

  • legislatures do not yet have appropriate representation for women and visible minorities

  • without proportional representation, voters tend towards apathy and cynicism

What bothers me most about this referendum campaign in Ontario is that there is insufficient discussion of the issue. We read occasional newspaper articles, mainly from those opposed to MMP, but very few know why the Citizens Assembly presented MMP to the Ontario electorate - in fact, only 12% of the electorate knows anything about MMP at all.

Here's how the vote will work under MMP.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0681 - Two years, moment-by-moment

Two years ago today, I was in Toronto at a TechNet tour at Paramount theatre, learning a little about the forthcoming Windows Vista, the XBox 360, and Windows Mobile 5.0. Einsteinfest was also underway in Waterloo at the Perimeter Institute as an alternative to the annual Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest. And I was waiting for an anticipated trip to San Diego followed later in the month by a colonoscopy.

It's amazing how much can change in a mere 730 days. Since then I've been diagnosed with rectal cancer, received radiation, undergone surgery, suffered through post-surgical complications, been treated with chemotherapy, lost 30 pounds, gained it back, and begun losing weight again; I've watched as my aunt lost a foot to melanoma, retired from co-founding a regional IT Pro user group, struggled back into full-time work and rejoined the IT Pro user group executive, written many, many blogs about cancer experience, and been discharged from care at the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre twice.

But here I am, alive, and celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with my immediate family. I've had much to be grateful for in these two years, some of which is terribly obvious, some of which is the consequence of attitude adjustment and thereby less apparent. This long weekend provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the course of the past two years, lessons learned, and new directions available to me.

When I read my own posts for the past two years, I'm struck by the range of feelings and the contingent nature of conclusions I reached. One thing for sure, as I reread these entries, is that I realize I cannot take myself or my "conclusions" too seriously since they keep shifting. I look for directions and development, hoping to find maturation of thought and feeling, but often finding nothing more than someone buffeted by live's circumstances and doing his best to figure it all out. I find myself as an example that who we think we are is mainly ephemeral, a mist blown about like the fog of an early autumn morning.

True, there is something that is constant as well, patterns of temperament, habits of thought and behavior, and propensities for verbal descriptions. But the bottom line of the two-year review is that I am what I happen to be at a particular moment in time. Take it or leave it, what you get in this unwanted journey is me in the moment, nothing more, nothing less.

And for that, too, I am thankful. That changing me is just an accelerated version of what would otherwise been the case without cancer. Yes, I dearly wish things would have been better in a variety of ways for the past 730 days. But they have by no means been all bad. Even the worst of this experience with cancer has meant flashes of illumination and moments of discovery and realization. And at this particular moment, I feel optimistic about my health and my options for the future.

For instance, tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday by going as a family of four to Martini's Restaurant in Kitchener. I'll be eating something from the menu that is whole foods and plant-based while the others in my family will undoubtedly partake of the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and typical fare for the season. I'll look across the table and realize that I'm a rich man. I have a wife whom I love dearly and who loves me, two sons who have become smart and mature young men whom I also dearly love and who also love and respect me. We are very different people, different from who we were two years ago, different from each other in many significant ways, and different from who we will become. But this weekend, in this place, we're together, being thankful and enjoying the moment.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0676 - Scientific Reductionism

"This gets to the heart of reductionism in science. As long as scientists study highly isolated chemicals and food components, and take the information out of context to make sweeping assumptions about complex diet and disease relationships, confusion will result. Misleading news headlines about this or that food chemical and this or that disease will be the norm. The more impressive message about the benefits of broad dietary change will be muted as long as we focus on relatively trivial details." - T. Colin Campbell, PhD, The China Study, p.286

I am a regular subscriber to Google Alerts using keywords like colorectal cancer, cancer + survivor, and Canada + cancer. Over the past year or so, I have received hundreds, perhaps thousands of news items publishing "this or that" scientific discovery about cancer drugs and treatment, about inspiring stories of survivors and patients, and about dietary and nutritional studies. In the past few weeks, especially, I have been reading about how fruits, vegetables, and dietary fibre probably don't help cancer survivors. Here is just one study published recently by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) which claims that breast cancer survivors and cancer recurrence aren't affected, at least in terms of statistical significance, by increasing intake of fruits and vegetables. Actually, this is one of the best that I've opened up and perused recently. Most of them merely regurgitate popular press summaries in which fruits, vegetables, and fiber are listed as having minimal impact on cancer recurrence.

These studies and publications are typical of the scientific reductionism which confuses everyone about the effects of broad dietary change. The Nurses' Health Study is perhaps the most well known, especially to those affected by breast cancer.

Here's the problem in a nutshell. When the general public reads studies and notices about "this or that" nutritional element, most of us are looking for a magic bullet. We want to know what to add to our existing, unchanged diet that will cure us or make us resistant to certain diseases. Most of these studies contradict one another, so we're left confused and frustrated. We're told that fat, for instance, increases the likelihood of contracting breast cancer. Then the next moment we're told that modifying dietary fat doesn't appreciably affect the onset of breast cancer. Who to believe and why?

The problem with the "magic bullet" inclined public and the "single dietary component" studies is that they both lead us away from the incontrovertible evidence linking diet and nutrition from cross-cultural and international studies, evidence that points to the "Western" diet as implicated in virtually all of our "Western" chronic diseases, cancer included.

In the JAMA study, for instance, we are never told that all of the women studied (as in the Nurses' Health Study) were carnivorous, high animal-protein, eaters. Adding a few fruits and vegetables to a diet already high in animal protein and refined carbohydrates might not make a big difference in cancer recurrence. But what we're not told is what would happen if we adopted a whole foods, plant-based diet as is the case in places like rural China.

Let's give cancer patients and survivors more credit. If I were to tell you that instead of looking for a magic bullet, what you needed to do was remove something from your lifestyle and diet, isn't it true that you might not like the message, but you'd be willing to give it a try, no matter how impractical it might seem to some people? If I told you that western chronic diseases can mostly be prevented and sometimes even reversed by becoming more active and eating a whole foods, plant-based diet, would you consider changing your lifestyle? I would!

It's time for a change, not just in the way studies are done and reported in the media, but in our expectations for a magical cure. If we've spent an entire lifetime getting to where we are with dietary excess and extravagance, then getting off the routine is undoubtedly more important than adding a few fruits and vegetables to an already poor diet.

I can do this, and I strongly suspect that many others affected by cancer can do this.