Recovering From Hustle: Cancer Helped Me Get Over Burnout


I was working hard and feeling burnt out, until a cancer diagnosis forced me to slow down and reevaluate the important things in life.

Rachael Kearney was becoming burnt out from work before being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Rachael Kearney was becoming burnt out from work before being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Photo provided by Rachael Kearney

The last three years haven’t exactly danced in the neat parameters of my bullet journal. Instead of a tidy paper plan, it’s felt more like a forest fire of loss and deforestation. Oddly enough, a cancer diagnosis is what helped me out of my perpetual burnout.

Three years ago, I was at a point I don’t ever want to return to: the land of sweat and hustle.

I worked hard and had a freelance design business before taking equity in a fledgling start up of a dating app. Could it have been any more fairytale career romance? This app was growing at a good pace, and I knew the mojitos and road bumps of online dating pretty well. It was personal interest plus career skills coming together. What could possibly not work out?

What I didn’t anticipate was the level of overwork and hustle that came with this career move. I was used to putting the hours in, as design can be unforgiving as an industry — although it is a lot of fun and has an amazing community connected to it. But that was something that disappeared as I took on my founder’s role: my community.

“No one cheats sleep” is absolutely true, but no one can do a healthy life without seeing their friends…Do we hold that dear when trying to progress to somewhere?

I didn’t at that point of time, and that is a regret. I fess up to being on a toxic diet of hustle content: Gary Vee, Tony Robbins, Steven Bartlett. This content isn’t terrible, but I was consuming it with the view that SO much of my future would hinge on how many hours I put in at that time.

An Exit Plan

I had to get out. So I did the best career move to date: I left and had a slow breakdown. There’s a Jim Carrey video called “Deep Rest,” which, in addition to a heap of self-kindness, enabled me to see depression in a different light. I could hold space for myself in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

Wrongly I was self-critical about depression. But with my burnout, I saw this as a temporary and vital stage of renewing and reinventing myself. I needed my “Deep Rest” as a reset and to re-evaluate what was important to me moving forwards. Friendship, connection and investing time in my community became a higher priority.

Having a Rare Cancer at a Young Age

Things did not exactly get better from here. Sometimes, one thing gives in life, and a domino effect can roll downhill from there.

I heard words that I absolutely was not expecting: “Rachael you have a tumor in your esophagus.”

Those words took some time to sink in. I had cancer. When I googled “esophagus cancer” and the treatment surgery, “esophagectomy,” I was not filled with hope, to say the least.

But the wonderful thing about my cancer diagnosis was that it was treatable. I think about that most days and feel a huge amount of gratitude. I was able to have chemo and surgery.

Chemo is a rough ride. Thankfully, there’s a confidence with surgery that the tumor is being physically removed, which is a big relief. I was able to rehabilitate, and eat orally once again after my chemo. It was a major relief to be removed from the feeding tube.

It’s hard to put it into words. My surgery was a bit like a gastric band. Because my tummy was reshaped with what was left of my esophagus, I no longer had the nerve connection telling me when I would be hungry. I don’t ever feel hunger now, which I can admit is quite useful at times, and makes me realize how much of my time I thought about food beforehand.

I can’t quite believe I’m admitting that cancer helped me get over hustle and burnout. It doesn’t make reasonable sense, but it gave me a huge heap of perspective.

With each milestone of my recovery — diagnosis, admission, getting off a feeding tube, surgery and food rehabilitation — a ground swell of confidence and gratitude would emerge. I had a renewed sense of purpose and more meaningful connection to some great friends. Things were no longer so focused on what I was achieving.

Who will ever look back and read their LinkedIn profile towards the end of their life?

I cast my mind back to my hustle lifestyle. Had I possibly caused this cancer? I was reassured by my surgeon that it’s difficult to pinpoint it onto one thing.

But it did help raise some questions: Does the body in some way keep score? Is this a protective measure so we don’t slip back into an old habit or situation that’s emotionally toxic? I was thoroughly over hustle and workaholism. I know for my sanity and the quality of work I do want to create that I won’t go back to the land of hustle again.

This article was written and submitted by Rachael Kearney, a self-proclaimed “recovering workaholic” who is now in remission from esophageal cancer. Kearney is the host of the "Call on Courage" podcast.

This article reflects the views of Rachael Kearney and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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