The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

My Dark Gamble

by Liz RodgersSurvivor, Non-Hodgkin\'s LymphomaMay 16, 2023View more posts from Liz Rodgers

Hi! I’m Liz. I got my ticket to join the “Young Adults With Cancer” community at age 33. If you found this article, you know better than most the alarmingly far-reaching impacts cancer has on lives. Obviously, it was the most physically challenging part of my journey, but let me have you take a step back. This story is to appreciate how a dark gamble (okay okay, “healthy risk”) won. That gamble gave me a launch pad and has me beaming about my career today.

Since childhood, I’ve been great at creative hands-on tasks. Any art classes were like breathing air to me: natural, easy, and fun. I always loved making things to give away. While my parents certainly didn’t curtail my artistic endeavors, they made it clear that making enough money to support yourself as an adult is hard. They didn’t say I “couldn’t” do art for a living but strongly suggested it be a side hustle that’s separate from a regular paycheck for bills. (Fair enough.) Around middle school, I realized that I was not the best student. I never really figured out how to study things I wasn’t captivated by. I skated by on average grades, relatively unnoticed. In high school, I knew college was coming, but paying for more school sounded like a really awful idea. Not only was I feeling academically burnt out, I simply wasn’t inspired by anything specific enough to commit.

In 2003 I was 17, working out my last year of high school when my mom mentioned, “A friend who works at the eyeglasses place in the mall is looking to hire, no experience necessary.” After getting hired and having a taste of lab work, I went all in and pursued opticianry full-time. No college is necessary in my state unless you want to become an actual eye doctor. I really loved the hands-on aspects of making and repairing eyeglasses. Helping people see is incredibly rewarding! Opticianry was consistent work that allowed me to live independently. It also allowed me to sit a lot. I’ve never been strong, so that was a major selling point. I was comfortable and proud of where I’d landed. I was confident in my abilities at work and felt certain there wasn’t another “equally fulfilling” career available for me. While I loved opticianry, I was afraid of burnout. I always felt like it wasn’t really “my calling,” as they say. I kept quietly looking for other jobs that gave me the “I could do that” feeling but never found anything worth jumping ship for.

I was 23 in 2008 when I accepted an Optician position at a respected local Optometrist’s office. I expected that they would offer health insurance and vacation benefits, but I was surprised in 2011 when they also offered cancer insurance! The cancer plan stated that I’d pay approximately $30 per month. 

“If you do get diagnosed with cancer, you get a lump sum check: $1,000 for every year you paid into the plan prior to your diagnosis.” 

The plan also promised cash advances for certain treatments like chemotherapy, to help out while you’re sick. It only took me a millisecond to decide to sign up. I had recently watched a friend of mine go through her own cancer battle. My grandparents and their siblings had many types of cancers. As dark as it sounds, I literally bet on the fact that I would get cancer.

It was July 2019 when I won that “dark gamble.” I was still employed at the same company, but now as manager of two locations. My rather unspecific diagnosis read “at least stage 2, Non-Hodgkin’s B-Cell Lymphoma.” So, I submitted a claim to The Cancer Plan, who promptly sent me a check for $8,000. No strings attached. Just a “sorry you got cancer” check! With that money, I was able to invest in my partner Matty’s photography business by getting him a lens he wanted. I knew he would be there for me, so it was kind of like a prepayment for the “unbearable strain” he would allegedly endure. Some went to bills, but honestly, I was afraid to spend it because, well… cancer. Everybody knows cancer is expensive. I also was afraid of another terrifying life assurance: taxes.

My doctor prescribed “R-EPOCH” treatment. I’m told this is an “intensive treatment plan,” (aren’t they all?) even though it doesn’t involve radiation. My treatment cycle was six days (hospital in-patient) receiving 24-hour IV chemo. This was followed by two weeks of rest and visiting nurses back home. Rinse and repeat six times (with a bonus week in the hospital for neutropenic fever). The Cancer Plan did follow through with many more paychecks for treatments, hospital stays, and tests—all gladly totaling over $25,000!

In January 2020 I had just finished treatment and was anxiously planning my return to work. There, I was given any accommodation I asked for but found my hands in too much pain to adjust glasses anymore. I was easily distracted and struggled to keep up with the basic tasks I had assigned myself. I had only been back to work for a couple of weeks when I got sick (tested as influenza, not COVID) which left me out for three weeks. I had taken on too much, too soon, and was still immunocompromised and weak. I remain astounded at the lack of guidance from my doctors about how chemo was going to ravage my mind and body. I was completely unaware that the effects hadn’t even fully caught up with me then. Soon after this point, I began realizing I wasn’t capable of the focus needed to drive. My fatigue was uncontrollable, and I simply could not get back on my feet. The treatments left me with “chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment,” chronic neuropathy pain, and unpredictable fatigue. It was around this time that my doctors reevaluated my health, deciding to extend my disability. I couldn’t work reliably for any company that I knew of. I was discouraged but determined to make a productive life for myself.

Matty watched me struggle to find my footing but never stopped encouraging me. He gets major credit for both my survival and smiles. I mentioned earlier investing in him… All this time at home had given us time to talk about what it takes to build a business. I had never previously tried because I was so afraid of figuring out how to pay taxes. (This is a major intimidation for many U.S. citizens!) But with determination not to return to retail and confidence I could learn whatever I needed to know, I decided to try something new.

Alongside my empathetic personality, I’ve always had a soft spot for personalizing items. I wanted to buy an industrial-grade laser to start a small engraving business. I talked to Matty about it. 

“I really want to buy a laser engraver. I know that the house needs work… but so do I. What do you think?” 

With all the inspiration and capital I needed, Matty is the one who convinced me to finally go for it. Cancer plan money, my hard work, and his encouragement are what bring me to where I am today: two years deep into business for myself, and I have never been happier!

Woah, woah, woah, woah—I know it sounds like a lot to go from “I’m disabled” in one paragraph, to “I decided to build a business” in the next, but let me explain. I’ve built this business around my need for random naps. Around my inability to drive, or keep track of time. The laser does the labor for me, so my inconsistent hands don’t have much to do besides finishing a project and delivering smiles. I’ve got apps to help me keep track of tasks. I over-estimate timeframes and clearly communicate with my clients upfront so there is never a disappointment if I need to take a week to recuperate when something unexpected wipes me out. I’m building a business, without having to kill myself doing it.

Am I keeping my optical certifications active? Yes. Am I planning to return to Optical? No. In my many years as an optician, I had the pleasure of learning a lot while working in a retail-medical environment. Helping people pick out glasses is personal. Helping people have better vision is rewarding. My toughest roadblock, though, was coworkers. Not to diss anyone—it’s more about the atmosphere in general. I really thrive in a setting where I am allowed to focus uninterrupted. That was the final piece to why I could never truly be happy working with others full-time, even if I was good at it. I loved my career as an optician. I claimed it as my identity though, leaving me much grief to unpack for quitting. Each life decision I made back then revolved around that job, which I fully intended to work at until I retired. That’s a dedicated, honorable way to live, but I wasted a lot of time working for others when I truly believe I have something unique to offer on my own.

I’ve taken my management and professional skills and moved on. Instead of helping people see, I am helping them envision (and create) the perfect gift for a loved one. It’s incredibly personal! Having happy reviews and customers that are coming back for my service is unbeatable! I’ve named the company “Scars For Strength LLC.” I engrave items (scar them) in thoughtful ways to help build the strength of relationships, both personal and professional. I am fulfilling my childhood bliss of making things and giving them away. Except, I added an awesome “get paid” part in the middle. I work for myself and for the direct effect I see it having on others.

I’m inspired, motivated, and confident this is what I am meant to do. This is hard, but that “I belong here” feeling is more precious to me than I can even begin to describe. (Either you know it, or you don’t.) I didn’t realize it, but I didn’t understand the word “fulfillment” before. I have cancer to thank for that. Yes, cancer sucked. However, contrary to the popular “F-cancer” sentiment, I really feel that it set me free. 

If you’d like to check out some of my creations, please visit To follow my partner Matty’s journey, please check out

Written by Liz Rodgers. Edited by Shawn Kelly. November 2022.

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