I Became A Photographer & Traveled The World After My Cancer Diagnosis

Photo: Courtesy of Alyssa Rosenheck.
Switching career tracks to do something you're passionate about is never easy, but for Alyssa Rosenheck, the impetus came in the form of a cancer diagnosis.
The 35-year-old was a high-earning medical advisor when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014. Within two weeks, she quit her job, bought a camera, and began actualizing her dream of becoming an interior photographer as she underwent surgery and healing. She now travels once a week for her assignments, and runs the blog The New Southern.
Here, Rosenheck shares how the diagnosis has prompted her to switch career tracks and travel more — and how her life has become fuller because of it.
I have always been a really hard-worker. Growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was an elite gymnast and played tennis throughout high school, and was offered a tennis scholarship in college. My dream was always to either go into the corporate world or become a doctor. I had imagined this really structured life path for myself, with financial independence at the forefront of my mind.
After graduation, I worked for two Fortune 500 companies in quick succession: My first job was with 3M's industrial manufacturing division, and I was working in a multi-million dollar sector of the company. Eventually, I shifted into the medical device consulting field. My area of specialty was surgical equipment for the spine: It was one of the highest-earning fields, but my schedule was grueling. I would be on 10 to 15-hour shifts at the hospital, talking to surgeons on the best types of device to use in the operating room.

In my six years working at this job, I didn't take any time off for vacation.

It was a highly demanding position in a heavily male-dominated field. In my six years working at this job, I didn't take time off for vacation — not even once. My only chance of ever doing some travel was when I attended medical industry conferences twice a year. In every sense of the word, my life leading up the the diagnosis was highly regimented and financially successful. My creative pursuits were an afterthought.
Photo: Courtesy of Alyssa Rosenheck.
I didn't have any symptoms leading up to my cancer diagnosis. I wasn't feeling sick or anything — and all of a sudden, my life had changed. When you hear that you have cancer, everything in the world just stops, and you recalibrate and try to figure out your priorities.
I felt numb and was almost in denial. Those were some of the foggiest memories I had: I just wanted to survive and focus on something positive. After having an internal dialogue with myself, I realized that that I wasn't living my most authentic life. There was this whole creative side of myself I wasn't pursuing.

I was chasing these arbitrary levels of success through financial and corporate markers, but I've never done anything for my own passion and enjoyment.

I've always gravitated towards photography and had en eye for composition, but I've never done anything professionally before. Within two weeks of getting my diagnoses, I dropped everything: I resigned from my job, bought myself a camera, and taught myself how to shoot by reading the manual. Interiors and architecture were the focus — and distraction — I needed.
Photo: Courtesy of Alyssa Rosenheck.
Doing this was my way of coping with everything that came with having cancer: Finding this creative outlet for myself was the cathartic experience that helped me through the surgery and recovery process. If anything, it allowed me to recognize how little control we have: Life happens regardless of the things things you're trying to achieve or the big life events you have going on. I was chasing these arbitrary levels of success through financial and corporate markers, but I've never done anything for my own passion and enjoyment.
I now travel once a week to shoot interiors around the country for magazines and private clients, and I get to style everything I shoot. Being able to travel weekly has this revitalizing magic that leaves me constantly inspired. When I'm on location shooting, there's a true joy that washes over me — I feel like I'm in the zone and finally expressing myself artistically. Being able to travel for work — and do things like shooting on a mountaintop in Utah — brings me to tears, because I never imagined myself behind the lens.
April will mark four years since I am cancer-free. I'm very lucky to have been diagnosed early and had a successful surgery. Or else, the cancer would have eventually spread to my lungs. In a way, having cancer felt like a permission to do want I really want with full-force. I'm not sure if I would have had the courage to switch to a new career track had I not found out about my health: When your survival is at question, things like a career change won't even phase you.
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