Lessons I Learned From Surviving Cancer (and How They Apply to Web Development)

This probably sounds like an odd topic for a blog about web development, but bear with me! Just over 12 years ago, I experienced probably the strangest 18 months or so of my life, when I became a medical mystery and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. It was an experience that sticks with me to this day, and that I learnt an awful lot from, much of which has been applicable to my work as well. I’d like to talk about my experience and share some of the lessons that I learnt along the way.

First up, a bit of history. The year is 2005, at this point I’ve been a web developer for around six years. I worked my way from a junior HTML developer role, doing HTML/CSS/JS to a backend developer coding in ASP/VBScript (I guess at this point, I would have been what the cool kids these days call a “full stack” developer). Learning all of the extra skills had consumed most of my spare time for the past four years or so, and my day job was helping to set up a new agency as one of the founding programmers. The job was incredibly high pressure and stressful, and crunch time was the norm, with the long hours and working weekends that entails. At the tail end of 2005, I decided to take the plunge and give freelancing a try. I’d put it off for years, as I’d never felt I was good enough, but I was badly burnt out and I decided I’d try freelancing, and if I was still struggling to enjoy the work, I’d re-train and do something else.

I started freelancing, and I quickly rediscovered my love of the work, and realised it was the environment that had burnt me out, rather than the actual work itself. However, towards Christmas that year, I started to get a cough that wouldn’t die. I started to get horrific night sweats, and then I started to have problems breathing. I went to the doctors, and would spend the next six months or so being a medical mystery. Trip after trip to see specialists, have tests done, all without getting closer to an answer started to take its toll. My health started to rapidly deteriorate, I started rapidly losing weight, and had no energy. I could barely walk to the shop, and concentrating to program became an issue. Finally I was sent for a surgical lung biopsy to investigate some anomalies that showed on a CT scan, and I finally had a answer. I was diagnosed with advanced Stage IVB Hodgkins Lymphoma (a cancer of the immune system), which had spread to my bone marrow, lungs, liver and other organs. Hodgkins Lymphoma has a very good survival rate (for cancer), but due to the advanced stage and spread of the disease, I was given around a 40% survival chance.

As soon as I’d recovered from the surgery, I began an intensive six month program of chemotherapy, with the understanding that if it worked I may need an additional two months at the end. The next six months were certainly interesting, it was hard work and I had to stop working entirely after a couple of months as the Chemo brain destroyed my ability to code, and the tiredness meant I spent most of my time asleep. Fortunately I responded extremely well to the treatment and was pronounced in remission after six months, no need for extra chemo (Yay). It took me a while to recover from the after effects, and I still have a few minor long term health effects (nothing too serious), but I survived. And here I am, still shambling around quite a while later. My life has changed considerably (mostly for the better) since. Being ill and coming to terms with the very real possibility that I might actually die had a profound effect on me and the way I work.

I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned along the way in the hope that they prove useful to others. In no particular order, here are some of the things I learnt!

Learn to Listen to Your Body

We work in an industry that has a bit of a culture problem. Not everywhere, but it’s distressingly common to see places where crunch time is the accepted norm. Devs are expected to work crazy hours and weekends, and if they can’t, they’re seen as somehow being lesser than the developers who are willing to kill themselves for work. We’re expected to spend every spare moment reading up and learning about the latest and greatest tech and frameworks, otherwise we’ll fall behind. The human body can only take so much abuse before bits start to go wrong and fall off.

I ignored a lot of the early symptoms of my illness because I just put it down to being tired from work. If I’d gone to the doctor sooner, there’s a chance I wouldn’t have been so far gone (I was a few months away from being dead when I was finally diagnosed).

If you don’t feel right, whether mentally or physically, don’t be afraid to get checked out. It’s genuinely not worth killing yourself for work. You should work to live, not the other way around.

If you’re feeling unwell or burnt out, take some time to look after yourself. Step away from your side projects for a while, stop spending all your time online. Go out and spend some time in nature. One of the things I make a HUGE effort with since being ill is making sure that I look after myself. I consider work/life balance to be the one of the most important things. If a job comes along that looks like there will be no balance, I’ll probably say no.

Support Networks are Important

I was lucky enough to live near an old WWII convalescence hospital that was a dedicated cancer unit when I was ill (sadly it's gone now, it's been turned into housing). As it was considerably closer than the main Oncology unit in town (which was also being rebuilt at the time), I was able to get my treatment there. The main thing about going there is that whilst I was there to be treated for Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which is considered an "easy" cancer (if such a thing exists), the vast majority of the other patients there were older, and being treated for much more serious cancers (many of them were on end of life palliative care). I met some phenomenal people sat in the chemo chair, and one of the things I learnt was the importance of support networks. There were broadly speaking, two kinds of patient. The ones who had a good support network of friends and family, and the ones that didn’t. Almost without exception, the patients I saw regularly who DID have a good support network handled chemo much better that the ones that didn’t.

At work, support networks are just as important. especially when you’re starting out. It’s easy to get bogged down with Imposter Syndrome and worrying about whether you have what it takes. In fairness, I struggle with some of this still, even after 20 years in the industry. Find a group of developers who will support you and help you to improve and learn. One of the reasons I’ve gone all in on Umbraco over the last few years is because of the supportive community. Go to meetups, find people online on Twitter and other platforms. Encourage each other and help make yourselves better.

Recognise how you deal with adversity

You ever really know how you deal with things until you have to deal with something really serious. When I was ill, I made a conscious decision very early on that I would take as positive an outlook as possible to what was going on. You might think that’s a bit weird, but bear with me. Having Cancer is shit, I won’t beat about the bush. However, it’s one of those things that once you have it, there’s not a lot you can do, other than get on with your treatment. If I took a gloomy/negative approach to the problem, it wasn’t going to help me and my state of mind, and it definitely wasn’t going to help my partner or family (I maintain to this day that cancer is worse for family and loved ones that for the person who has it, being ill is horrible, but having to watch someone you love waste away and having to consider you might lose them is MUCH worse).

So I decided to take as positive an outlook as I could. I’d be grateful for any extra time that I got, and would try and look on the bright side. Hopefully it helped my loved ones, and I found it helped me as well. When I finished treatment, I could have focused on the fact that my health was shot, my life expectancy was decreased, and I’m at risk of developing secondary cancer later in life. But why bother? It won’t make me feel better, and it certainly won’t affect the likelihood of anything bad occurring. I looked at the experience and took the positives away from it rather than dwelling on the negatives.

I started carrying this across to work. Things often go wrong on projects, but how you handle it is very important. If you focus on the negatives of the situation, it affects morale, attitude and the quality of your work. I try and maintain a positive outlook. What can we learn from what’s happened? What processes/code can we improve to stop this happening again? This is especially important when you work in a team. All it takes is one overly negative team member, and the whole team can start to get dragged down in negative sentiment and attitude.

So next time you encounter adversity, take a step back and look at how you deal with it. Are you dealing with it in a way that helps? Are you making an improvement, or making a bad situation worse?

The little things in life are more important than you realise

When you get the all clear from cancer, you get a bit of a honeymoon period. Everything that you used to take for granted is suddenly AMAZING. That sunrise on the way to work? BEST SUNRISE EVER!!! That emotional film you’re watching? IT SPEAKS TO MY VERY SOUL, I WILL NOW DROWN EVERYONE AROUND ME IN SNOT AND TEARS. It can be a bit overwhelming, but on the other hand, it makes you realise how much amazing stuff we just take for granted.

I’ve tried to hang onto this as much as I can. I find if you find the wonder in little things, it can be great for your mental health. This carries through to work as well. If you find something cool, whether that’s a package, or a code tutorial, or even an answer to a problem on Stack Overflow, give it some love. Share it with your friends/co-workers.

Be supportive to others

I was incredibly lucky when I was ill. I have a large group of very supportive friends who came to visit me often and we’d talk, watch films and just hang out. It really helped, especially when I was too ill to leave the house. Without those people, it would have been very lonely and isolated. I work a music festival in the summer every year, and I was allowed to work, even though I was ill. I was offered a free pass and to not have to work, but I just wanted to feel normal again and asked if I could still work. It was a real standout during treatment, for three days I felt (almost) normal, and I was surrounded by people who would come up and ask how I was and give me a hug. Even thinking about it makes me well up.

I’ve carried this through to my work. I always try and be supportive of my co-workers. Help the juniors to improve. If you spot that one of your co-workers is having a rough time of it, take them out for lunch and let them talk. One of the things I’ve always loved about the Umbraco community is how supportive it can be. Be the kind of person you’d like to work with!

Accept that sometimes shit things happen

Despite our best intentions, sometimes shit things happen. You might wonder “why me? What did I do wrong?”. And the answer is sometimes “nothing, and just because”. You can easily go crazy trying to figure out why something has happened, and in general I’ve found the best thing to do is to accept that it’s happened and try and move on as best you can. When I was diagnosed, I spent a while agonising over this, and then I realised that all I was doing was wasting time and making myself miserable. My time and energy was much better spent dealing with the situation I found myself in.

This applies to work as well. When things go horribly wrong sometimes, unless there’s an obvious cause that you can blame, your time and energy is best funneled into sorting out what’s happened. If you have to, you can dig into it once you’re done, but accept that it’s happened and do what you can to make it better.

Don’t put things off

One of the things that really stuck with me when I was ill was the thought of all the things that I wished I’d done, or been meaning to get round to but hadn’t. I wanted to learn to snowboard, I wanted to Scuba dive. Ever since I’d first seen it from the train to Osaka, I’d wanted to climb Mt Fuji. Once I was better, I made a point of going out and trying to do as many of these things as I could (sadly, I can never Scuba thanks to one of the chemo drugs, but hey ho). I’ve learnt to snowboard, and to celebrate five years in remission, I traveled to Japan with a group of friends and climbed to the top of Mt Fuji, something that was a very emotional experience. To this day I make a point of trying to do one thing I’ve always wanted to do every year, no matter how small. Experiences will last a lifetime, and one day you may wake up and discover you can no longer do the things you planned (the absolutely heartbreaking start of the film Up is a great example of this, seriously, I can’t watch that with bursting into tears to this day).

Try and do at least one thing every year that you’ve always wanted to try, no matter how small it might seem. You might surprise yourself and discover something you really love. Snowboarding turned out to be that for me. Even though I was AWFUL to start of with, I’ve kept at it, and I still love it to this day.

Don’t get hung up on what could happen

This hit me a couple of times during treatment. The first was when I was diagnosed. Once I was told my diagnosis and my chances of survival were, I could easily have obsessed about the details, about things I should and shouldn’t do etc. But I quickly realised all I was doing was making myself stressed out. Instead I focussed on the treatment and getting through it. The outcome would be what the outcome would be, there was very little I could actually do to affect the outcome. Either the treatment would work, or it wouldn’t. And if it didn’t, I’d deal with it when it happened. Maintaining that outlook helped to keep me sane during treatment. I had the same post treatment. I had a fairly high chance of relapse, and again I realised that worrying about it was counterproductive. If I spent all my time agonising about what I should and shouldn’t do I’d miss out on the extra time I’d been given. Again, I choose to enjoy the extra time I’ve been gifted, if I’m unlucky enough to relapse, I’ll deal with it when it happens.

With web development, we’re often thinking about how things work and what could go wrong. But it’s easy to get too caught up in worrying about what might happen. These days I’ll be a bit more spontaneous in my development style. I’ll plan stuff out of course, but I’ll also experiment more, as you can always go back and refactor if it’s not quite right.

I hope this has proved to be useful/interesting. I’m not sure how well I’ve managed to articulate any of this! I’d like to point out at this point that I was incredibly lucky. I have a very supportive partner who really stepped up when I was ill, without her, I’d have been lost. I’m also lucky enough to live somewhere where access to/cost of treatment wasn’t an issue (no need for me to start making illegal websites in a trailer with a sidekick for me). But if any of you are affected by cancer and want to talk about it, I’m always happy to talk about my experiences and offer advice or support. Either grab me at one of the Umbraco events, or drop me a line on Twitter (@attack_monkey).

About the Author

Tim Payne is a freelance developer, based in the north of England with over 15 years of experience who’s been working with Umbraco since v4. When he’s not slaving in the code mines, he can be found participating in crazy challenges because they seemed like a good idea at the time, or running around after his tiny daughter.

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