A pause before the next chapter

3 weeks ago I was offered a post as a consultant oncologist specializing in germ cell tumours and sarcomas in Nottingham. The job ticks absolutely all the boxes for me in terms of my dream job, combining both potentially curative and palliative treatments, covering a diverse demographic including a significant proportion of younger patients and working as part of a great team. Nottingham oncology department supported a one-year career break that turned into two and a half when most departments wouldn’t have done. It really is unique to have been allowed to pursue the career pathway I have done without sacrificing my training number and for that I will always be grateful. For better or worse they are now stuck with me.

Being a consultant excites me, particularly the prospect of having patients for life. One of the things I enjoy most about work is the relationships we are, as doctors, so privileged to build with patients. As a trainee you only ever get six months or so to do this before you’re moved on to the next rotation. That’s hard for patients who get just enough time to trust us before they meet someone new, but it’s also hard for us, the doctors. I’ve long been looking forward to the time that I get to care for patients longer term. However I’m not going to pretend I’m not also somewhat apprehensive. Partly at the challenges that come with the extra responsibilities, though I’m confident I’m up to the job. But mainly at the prospect that this is, potentially, the next phase of the rest of my life. Looking back I’ve never really planned further forward than a few years at a time. The thought of having a job that is theoretically for life both terrifies and excites me. When I told one of my nurse colleagues that I was planning a break before starting she joked with me that I was ‘being dragged kicking and screaming into grown up life’. But there is a half-truth in this. As an oncologist, I perhaps am more aware of my own mortality than others. Having a job that could, on paper last until retirement, to me, at times, seems somewhat overwhelming. But I guess I’m overthinking here!

So the long and short of it is that I have my dream job lined up, ready to start after Easter. Which gives me around 10 weeks or so of bliss unemployment. Since returning to work in November 2016 my life has quite literally been non-stop. I’ve jumped from hoop to hoop, moving on to the next one as soon as I’ve cleared the last. I actually don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to process my achievements, moving on to something else as soon as I’ve ticked the last hurdle off. 2 years and 3 months to return to work after a career break, finish my reg training, prepare for and pass my final exams, prepare for and get a consultant post, 6 Ironman wins (7 if you count Patagonman), set up 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer and help launch www.cancerfit.me. It’s not surprising I need a break. And time to do the day-to-day things I haven’t had a chance to do for the last 2 years; mundane things like replacing light bulbs, sorting out my tupperware and buying new underwear. Life-affirming things like visiting friends. And ‘non-work, work’ things like 5K Your Way (www.5kyourway.org). I honestly can’t believe how quickly this initiative is growing. It’s something I’m absolutely passionate about and immensely proud of. But an absolute priority for the next month or so has to be finding some funding to allow us to employ a team to help us to support the snowball effect as best we can. 5K Your Way has already outgrown what Gemma and I can support independently in our own time so seeking funding for this isn’t a choice but essential.

However, for the last 2 weeks I’ve been on a self-indulgent adventure cycle touring solo in Thailand. My first (and only) experience of cycle touring was just after qualifying as a doctor; my boyfriend at the time and I spent a week cycling the Dingle peninsula in Ireland. This started my love affair with cycling (I don’t think his ever continued!). But it seems apt that I have celebrated finishing my doctor training with a cycle touring trip, though this thought only occurred to me retrospectively on the ride. I’d been so busy and stressed preparing for my interview that I literally hadn’t planned this further than booking some flights to Thailand, having a vague idea of cycling from Bangkok to Phuket and then flying north to Chiang Mai to ride the Mae Hong Son loop (this had come up from a quick internet search of ‘best road bikepacking routes’) and buying some bags for my bike that I had yet to fit. I’ve been wanting to go cycle touring for years and there is something very fulfilling about doing something you’ve always wanted to do. The trip really was everything I wanted it to be, particularly the second week in the North, which was even more spectacular and far tougher (definitely hardened by a nasty dose of food poisoning the first night) than I expected. If you’re interested you can read a good summary of the route here. I did it in five days on my standard Simplon road bike set up, which meant I spent a good proportion of the climbs out of the saddle zigzagging across the road to avoid walking. It was some of the hardest and most dramatic riding of my life and honestly, I couldn’t think of a better way to reset after a stressful January preparing for my interview. I also have a sneaky feeling I’m pretty fit. Wonder what would happen if I raced an early season Ironman off the back of cycle touring?!

So two months of 2019 nearly done. Two challenges ticked off (1: get consultant job. 2: go cycle touring). Next up is the March one; a cross-country ski marathon in just over 2 weeks. Helen Murray you have a lot to answer for!

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