Cancer Does What It Wants

As many of you know, I was diagnosed with larynx cancer earlier this year. I had a small growth on my vocal chords that turned out to have some cancer in it. They removed the growth (while preserving my vocal chords, thank you very much) and this June I went through radiation treatment to make sure there was no cancer left in the system. I'm told that it's all gone now, and from here on out they'll just monitor me. If I can go five years without seeing any more lesions, then they call it cured, and the odds are pretty good for that outcome, so yay for that.

Being a leadership/culture guy and a blogger, I thought I'd reflect a bit on the leadership lessons from the experience. Many people congratulated me on my positive attitude toward the whole thing, and I guess it's true that I could have become more depressed or negative about it, but on reflection, that's the most important point here:

I don't control the cancer.

Cancer does whatever it wants. Apparently the people who get larynx cancer are older and they either smoked or drank a lot. Not true with me, though, and the cancer didn't care that I didn't present the risk factors. It showed up anyway. So I had to deal with it. That meant I had to endure radiation, which was harder than I thought it would be. Eating became very difficult and I lost a lot of weight before I could recover enough to eat solid food again. But I didn't get a pass just because the cancer shouldn't have been there.

There is a difference between the work that you need to do and the circumstances that generate the need. You don't control the circumstances; you only control your response to them. You control the work you do. The circumstances have a lot of "should" in them. There's some benefit in digging into the should. If I had acquired this cancer from smoking for 20 years, that's important to know. I shouldn't deny that truth. But there is a limit to the value in staying in the should. The real value is in what is, and what will be.

Cancer will do what it wants. What remains to be seen is what you will do. This principle applies beyond the health issues, of course. The world will deliver you all sorts of circumstances--some what you were expecting or planning for, and some that will throw you for a loop. Either way, your only way forward is through your behavior and approach to the circumstances. What is getting in the way of a clear response from you? It's not the circumstances themselves. The more you can clear your own head to enable the action that is needed, the better off you'll be, no matter what the circumstances present. This requires you to do some work--on yourself.

Do that work on yourself. And do it now, because the cancer won't care if you're ready or not. It does what it wants.

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3 Comments

  1. 05.08.2015 at 9:59 am

    Jamie: Sorry to learn of your diagnosis but very glad to know you are on the mend. Mental and emotional groundedness is key and you are getting that in order. It is indeed all about choosing how you will respond to life. I too have been an athlete all my life, quit a minor smoking habit years ago in my twenties, drink moderately yet in 2005 – just after one semester into my graduate program at Georgetown – was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I had to suspend school for a year, pull back on my business, move us out of our DC apartment and retreat to our home in Philly for chemo. Fortunately, I didn’t need to do radiation – that’s a real bitch. I admire your strength. Hang in. A decade now since my diagnosis, I’m cancer free and a lot calmer about life overall. I realized that half the stress was due to how I chose to react to everything. Big lesson.

  2. 05.08.2015 at 6:48 pm

    Heaping huge piles of well wishes, Jamie.

  3. 08.08.2015 at 1:41 am

    Your article is so true. It seems cancer is touching a few of my friends recently. One of them is the son of my friend. Cancer came from nowhere to a boy who just a month before was active and healthy. Another friend of mine is on her fifth round of treatment and is unfortunatly feeling terrible both physically and emotionally. My sister is just one year in recovery. Your insights into the leadership aspect remind me of Covey’s first habit- be proactive. Many things are not in your control, but your response is. It takes a lot of strength to keep that perspective when your body is going through something so physically challenging. Cancer does what it wants.

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