By Bincy Mathew, MPhil
I started my career as a nurse (unwillingly), turned to a psychologist (secretly), and became a psycho-oncologist (happily). Here is my story.
Part I: A nurse who was an undercover psychologist.
I wanted to be a psychologist. Instead, I started out as a nurse, because everyone around me thought it was “the right thing to do” for a middle-class girl from a small town in Kerala, India. Even my own parents worried about “what others would say” if they let me choose arts over a professional and lucrative career like nursing.
For most families in India, higher education is still a privilege. It is more about a careful investment by the family for a financially secure future. It is more complex when this investment is made on a daughter as the equation of the return of the investment changes in typical Indian society. Whether daughter or son, following one’s passion or individualistic goals have less room in a middle-class family to mitigate the economic risk. For the last few decades, nursing is considered the most suitable gateway to employment overseas for a higher salary. As the demand has increased for female nurses, it naturally is seen as the responsibility of the daughter to lift up the family’s economic status.
With no options left, I had to secretly enroll myself in a psychology course which I pursued alongside nursing. I made my family proud when I got my first job as a nurse at a popular private hospital chain in Chennai. But I also saw it as an opportunity to practice my secret career. I voluntarily gave counseling to the ailing patients at the hospital. It was a win-win situation.
One day, a doctor at the hospital made the passing comment, “You must have been a grief counselor in a previous life,” which I took as a compliment. His words planted a seed in my head and poured enough fuel to ignite a fire in my heart, and so I found my calling. I enrolled myself in a full-time master’s programme at Christ University, Bangalore. I had to trick my family into believing that it was a master’s in psychiatric nursing; however, that lie did not last long. My family thought the money spent on my education was going straight into the drain. My elder brother came to my rescue, as he accompanied me as my guardian for the mandatory parents’ meeting with the admission team, and with his support I was allowed to continue with the master’s degree in psychology.
Part II: How I discovered psycho-oncology and the problems of being there too early.
Each step I took was surrounded by uncertainties and unknowns. On one side, there was the pressure of being thrown suddenly into a master’s-level programme in a different field of study than my original training; on the other, the cultural shock of life at a university in a very large city put tremendous pressure on me. I started doubting all my decisions and I felt lost. I would not have survived to the end of the programme if not for a few friends who literally stood by my side.
My pursuit of the holy grail of a career in grief psychology led me to take an internship at a cancer hospital, which was where I discovered psycho-oncology: a lesser-known, super-specialty field which offers psychological support for people with cancer and their caregivers. With new found energy, I gave my family another shock when I enrolled myself for an MPhil in psycho-oncology at Cancer Institute (WIA), Chennai. Here, in the clinical setup, my nursing background—which had felt so irrelevant before—suddenly gave me an extra edge over my peers. As I graduated from the Cancer Institute (WIA), I thought my life could not have been any better.
To my surprise, the fight wasn’t over yet. Psycho-oncology being in its nascent stage in India, my job search was a real daunting task. Human resources staff at many well-known hospitals turned down my application, as such a profession did not exist in their institutions. All I could do was to go to hospital after hospital, introducing psycho-oncology to the faculty and advocating for its need in cancer care. This did not yield any immediate results and I took up a research associate job in sports psychology in the meantime.
Finally, a year later, I received an offer to be a psycho-oncologist at MVR Cancer Centre and Research Institute in northern Kerala. I called it the right job at the wrong time, as my wedding was around the corner and my husband and I were moving to Delhi, much too far to commute. I had to start all over again—but this time, I was not alone.
Part III: Deja vu, Delhi, and new beginnings.
It felt like deja vu. The culture shock I experienced in Delhi was very like my time in Bangalore. Everything about the city was too overwhelming to me—the culture, the food, the language, and the people. On top of that, I had to be on ground working like a salesperson, taking appointments and making presentations about psycho-oncology and finally asking for a job. It was a very intimidating experience.
When I thought it would take ages before I could find a job, I shared a dream with my husband that I wanted to do something online and reach even more people to spread awareness about psycho-oncology in India. I hadn’t done it, though, because I knew I would be ridiculed by my own people. Why would anyone listen to me when I hadn’t even been able to find myself a stable job? What would they say?
My husband listened carefully to my hopes and my fears, and then said, “You know what? ‘What will people say?’ has killed more dreams than anything else in the world.”
It struck a chord with me immediately. Together, we finally took a small step in the direction of my dream; we created a Facebook page called psycho-oncology.in, an online initiative aiming at bringing much-needed awareness about psychological support and its importance in prevention, treatment, and survivorship after cancer, thereby improving the quality of life of patients with cancer and their caregivers around the world.
Four months into my life in Delhi, I started hearing from hospitals. Suddenly I had more than a couple of potential offers in hand, and I picked one that felt like the best fit. As luck may have it, at my new workplace I found some people I admired, and that feeling of having achieved my goal is yet to sink in. Although I was not consciously scripting my journey, I am just realizing now how far I have come.
You are now at the end of the beginning of my story, as I am just starting my career as a psycho-oncologist. I am not yet sure where the path will lead, but looking at the opportunities ahead I feel nervous and excited at the same time.
P.S. It is better late than never.
I thought of quitting at each stage of my journey, but I made a narrow escape each time. It gives me nightmares now to imagine how my life might have turned out if I had given up, completely ignoring my dreams and giving in to the fear of “what would others say.” I am glad I didn’t.
If I have learned one thing from the past years, it is this: no matter what you are today, no matter how big or small your dreams are, all you need to do is just stop listening to the demons whispering in your ears, “But what will others say?” Gather yourself up, give yourself a pat on your back, say “It is better late than never,” and rise!
Ms. Mathew is a psycho-oncologist and a tobacco cessation therapist at the ManipalHospitals, New Delhi, India. She continues to work on creating more awareness about the importance of psycho-oncology in the cancer care settings in India and aspires to become an influencer and spokesperson for psycho-social aspects in the health care ecosystem in India. She blogs about the psycho-social aspects of cancer care and publishes cancer prevention and awareness materials on her Facebook page psycho-oncology.in. Follow her on Twitter @PsychOncologyIn.