What Cancer Taught Me About Freelance Writing

Michael Stover
Apr 20, 2019 · 9 min read
Michael Stover

I am a cancer survivor. The headline photo for this article is my cancer survivor tattoo, and it features my diagnosis and cancer-free dates, and the words “I am a Survivor.”

I am a cancer survivor.

You may wonder what cancer has to do with freelance writing. For me, writing became my deliverance after cancer and treatments rendered me hors de combat from my career at that time. Writing was my only outlet, my only way to be productive.

Fourteen years after my initial diagnosis, I am thankful for valuable lessons I learned that I’ve applied to my freelance writing business. I’m glad to be alive, and to share those lessons with you.

My Cancer Journey

After a brief period of travel connected with my career, I contracted double pneumonia in February 2005. I was diagnosed at a local hospital, where the pneumonia was clearly visible in both my lungs on an x-ray.

I was treated, released, and recovered at home. As the year progressed, I experienced odd symptoms that I brushed off as signs of aging. Night sweats, itching in my lower extremities, and unexplained weight loss were the major irritants.

One day in August of that same year, I traveled a few hours from my home for matters connected with my career. I felt sick and weak, but kept my appointment. As I traveled home, I continued to feel worse.

It was almost as if the pneumonia had returned. I arrived home and spent the evening on the couch as my wife and children celebrated one of our sons’ birthday. I felt too exhausted and weak to participate. Afterward, my wife compelled me to go with her to the hospital emergency room.

Receiving the News

As I shared my current symptoms with the ER physician, he agreed that I was having another bout with pneumonia, and ordered an x-ray to confirm his initial diagnosis. The x-rays were taken and my wife and I were confined in a tiny exam room to wait.

In time the same doctor returned and explained that another set of x-rays was necessary. A problem with the first machine made the other images unusable. So, another few x-rays were taken on a different machine and again we waited.

When the doctor finally returned, his countenance was much different. He carried a bundle of x-rays, which he spread out on the table in the room. He faced us and began talking. My memory here gets fuzzy (chemo brain, which I’ll talk about later), but I remember in the middle of his rambling hearing the term “Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”

I was 35 years old, with 5 children at home, and no health insurance.

I stopped him and asked if he would repeat what he just said, and he did so. There was no mistake. I had cancer. He showed us the current x-rays of my upper chest that showed only a large mass that blocked the outline of my lungs.

He also showed the x-rays from February, where my lungs were clearly visible with pneumonia. Between February and August of that same year, a mass had developed that completely blocked a view of my lungs.

A CT scan that night confirmed his diagnosis, and while in the hospital for the next ten days, a sample was tested at the Mayo Clinic and confirmed that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The mass extended from the bottom of my neck to my stomach, and reached completely across my torso.

I was 35 years old, with 5 children at home, and no health insurance.

Cancer Treatments

From August 2005 to May 2006, I underwent 18 chemotherapy treatments and 25 radiation treatments. The one-two-punch of chemotherapy and then radiation was supposed to be very effective at eliminating Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The chemotherapy was debilitating, to say the least. Three versions of poison were leaked into my veins with a saline solution in each treatment. It took hours, and became even longer each time, as my veins rebelled against the chemicals and the process had to be done slower.

I became sensitive to noise and light, and everything tasted like metal. My wife accompanied me to every treatment, and she describes it as watching the life drain out of me. The cumulative effect of multiple treatments was harder and harder to overcome before the next treatment.

I wanted to quit and die.

Among the side-effects of chemotherapy are a weakened heart and weakened lungs, in which many irreplaceable air sacs were destroyed. I cannot over exert myself or take very deep breaths. I simply cannot breathe hard.

Also, chunks of my memory are just gone. It’s called chemo brain, and it begins during treatment. Some things have returned; some things have not. Stories from my childhood I told to my wife numerous times in the past, I cannot remember happening at all. Many events through the treatment process I also do not remember.

It was the hardest battle of my life. I wanted to quit and die. To my everlasting gratitude, my wife and children would not let me quit. In May 2006, just in time for another son’s birthday, I was pronounced cancer-free. I have remained so since then.

Lessons Learned that I Applied to Freelance Writing

Somewhere along the treatment journey, I made a decision. I did not know for a period of time if I would live or die. I did not know if I would be able to continue my profession, which at that time involved considerable public speaking.

Strangely enough, it was during this downtime that a writing opportunity came my way. I wrote material that was later published in a popular line of bible study curriculum. That writing became something solid I could grasp.

For the first time, I saw writing as a means of contributing value. If I could do nothing else after battling cancer, I could write. And I did. It was the very cusp of my freelance writing journey; a journey that finally led to full-time freelancing in 2018.

My cancer experience taught me some hard truths that I have since applied to my freelance writing business. Let me share them with you as bluntly as they confronted me.

Shit Happens

Harsh? Yes. Crude; possibly. But it is stark reality. After nine days in the hospital asking, “Why me?” I finally began asking, “Why not me?” Life comes crashing in on all of us, at the most unexpected times.

Don’t think that you are immune and setbacks will not happen to you. Especially in your freelance career. Clients drop away. Appliances break. Cars need work. Kids need things. People get cancer.

I learned to be as prepared as possible for what could happen. Have a contingency fund for sudden, unplanned expenses or lean months. Purchase life insurance to protect your loved ones for when the inevitable happens.

Be prepared for life to happen in all its ugliness, because it will at the least favorable moment. Don’t cry about it. Prepare for it, then deal with it when it comes.

Don’t Ignore Symptoms

When strange things happen, pay attention. They are signs that something is not right, or is going wrong. The strange physical occurrences I endured were a warning that something was happening within my body. And I was too stupid to pay attention.

When strange things occur in your business, pay attention. If your work needs revising more often, wake up and locate the problem. If a steady client suddenly leaves or reduces the amount of work you enjoy, find out what is going on. Ask questions.

I was too stupid to pay attention.

If something that was successful no longer enjoys the same level of success, do some digging and find out why. There is always an underlying issue that can possibly be resolved. You should always try.

Ignoring strange or unexplained happenings will destroy your business just as surely as cancer could have taken my life. What if I had had an exam at the first onset of night sweats or itching? Who knows?

Perseverance is Key

Earlier I wrote that somewhere along the treatment journey I made a decision. That decision was to keep going. It was hard. But I resolved not to quit. Sometimes I just pushed through one wave of nausea at a time. Or one crushing headache at a time. Or one more treatment.

Often, I couldn’t see the end of the process; only the next step or two. I just kept choosing to endure that far. And then choosing again to endure to the next step. Until I endured through it all.

Freelancing is hard. Don’t let anyone with a best-selling book that promises riches and laziness tell you different. At least, my brand of freelancing has been hard. It is work, plain and simple.

The key is perseverance. Hang in there long enough to learn what you need to learn and get as good as you need to be to make it. And then keep hanging in there. One. Step. At. A. Time. It always pays to try it again, and again, and again.

The Bottom Line

One scene from a favorite movie captured me. In 1994, The Shawshank Redemption featured actor Tim Robbins playing the role of Andy Dufresne, a banker convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Andy’s words thundered into my brain and found a permanent mooring place.

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

The Shawshank Redemption

Andy utters this phrase to his best friend, Ellis Redding (who repeats it later), played by Morgan Freeman, after a particularly harrowing experience of punishment. It reflected a decision Andy made that shapes the remainder of the movie.

That statement became my mantra for survival. I had to make a choice to live or die. I chose to live. I made that choice over and over, sometimes several times a day. But I kept choosing to live.

Your freelance business can live or die, and the choice is up to you. There were times I thought my writing business would never get off the ground, but I kept choosing to write and edit and pitch to clients.

Your freelance business can live or die, and the choice is up to you.

I thought about quitting. A few times I wanted to quit. But I chose not to let my dream of a freelance business die. That meant I had to get busy doing the things that would help it live.

And so do you. Are you thinking about quitting? Stop it right now. Decide. Quit or choose to keep going. Get busy living or get busy dying. I hope that you’ll choose life.

I did, and I’ve never been sorry.

If you enjoyed this article, see my other Medium articles or visit my website at Michael Stover — Freelance Writer & Editor.

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Michael Stover

Written by

Author, talented writer, and exacting editor. Exploring the depths and riches of the written word. Why not join me? Learn more at http://michaeldstover.com.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Michael Stover

Written by

Author, talented writer, and exacting editor. Exploring the depths and riches of the written word. Why not join me? Learn more at http://michaeldstover.com.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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