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Cancer and My Dissertation

by Devyani MahajanSurvivor, OsteosarcomaAugust 16, 2020View more posts from Devyani Mahajan

I woke up on 7th July 2017 like any other day; my cat purring at my side and the smell of fresh coffee coming from the kitchen. Little did I know that this date would change the course of my life completely. I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma of the head, even after all the reassurances my family and friends had provided me. I remember being completely numb when I found out about it; no tears or fear, those would come later, just an empty void with me in the center.

As a graduate student pursuing my Ph.D in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, that summer was supposed to be an exciting one, I had finally landed my dream internship in LA and things were finally falling in place. All that would change and a different kind of summer awaited me, filled with doctor visits and anxiety. My diagnosis was a rare one and there was a lot of confusion regarding the mode of treatment. The consensus then was that only radiation would be needed, after which I thought life would go back to normal. As I was gearing up to restart with my routine, and working on my dissertation, I found out that my cancer had metastasized to both my lungs.

It was then that I realized that this was going to be a difficult fight, and an extremely steep uphill climb.

I also started to question whether I would now even be able to continue working on my Ph.D, because I had to get chemo. It was honestly like a punch in the gut, because I knew how hard I had worked to get to where I was. The main question I was asking myself was whether I going to let this affect my drive, and motivation to finish what I had started?

Don’t get me wrong, I knew the gravity of the situation. But I was genuinely concerned about my degree, and my career. It was then that I chose to look at cancer as a bump in the road, even though I was aware of the struggle that lay ahead. I had to get treatment every three weeks. At that time, I also wanted to start working on my dissertation proposal, so that I could have my committee approve it well in time, to then begin with my research.

It was tough, very tough.

I am not going to sugar coat it in any possible way. Chemotherapy is a difficult experience, not just physically, but mentally too. It breaks you to the point where you feel you cannot make it. It is so invasive that there were days I preferred to end the treatment and take what came, rather than go in for my next infusion. Then came the third cycle of my infusion after which I had to be rushed to the emergency room and from there to the ICU. I don’t remember what happened in the ICU, but later on I would be told by nurses and my husband how critical my condition was, and how close to losing everything I was.

I remember one of the nurses fondly telling me that I was a miracle in the ICU based on how quickly I recovered and how many things were wrong with me at the time. But funnily enough, the only thing I remember, was the first thing I said after opening my eyes “tell my professor I cannot meet the Friday deadline”. I didn’t even realize I had been in the hospital for 2.5 weeks and the deadline had long passed. It was at that moment I realized how important getting that degree was for me. I had visualized my commencement, holding my degree, and being introduced and acknowledged as Devyani Mahajan. Ph.D so many times that even the thought that that might not happen, had terrified me. And it was also then that I realized the level of uncertainty that the future held, and that I had to fit my academic goals in one way or another.

After I came home, I still had to take three more cycles of chemo, which would have taken two months to complete, followed by a CT scan to see how the cancer reacted. At that point I knew I had to set a deadline for myself, to propose my dissertation to my committee. I was aware of the fact that the treatment may or may not work. I knew I had no control over that. What I did have control over was how much I could push through. I continued writing my dissertation proposal draft. My advisor gave me feedback; I would work on it and send it back. I would work in bed with my laptop. When I felt physically tired, I would stop, take a nap, eat something (if I could) and write again.

As odd as it sounds writing my proposal draft calmed me down, and it gave me a reason to fight this beast.

Also looking back, it gave me the strength to fight on, and to come out on the other side. And I definitely did not do it alone, I had the support of my husband, who has been a pillar of strength, and my oncology team. All the while I had no clue what was going to happen, I knew how uncertain my future was, but I kept writing. I proposed my dissertation on 12th November 2018, 11 days after I finished the sixth cycle of my chemotherapy. I have learned to cherish these little victories. I landed my dream internship again in 2019, the same one that I had to forgo in 2017. And most importantly, I am on the final stages of my dissertation. I know that the shadow of cancer will continue to loom over like a dark cloud, but it does get easier and I hope that day comes, when cancer will become a distant memory.

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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