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5 Lessons I’ve Learned from My Cancer Journey
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  • 22 Jul 2018

I’ve had cancer.

Twice.

I’m not long out of hospital following my second cancer surgery in 9 months.  After the first surgery (two surgeons, 13 hours!), I had 6-weeks of radiotherapy, which was pretty hideous.  This time around, the surgery was only 3 hours and much more straight-forward (as much as having a tumour removed from your neck can be!). I now have radiotherapy to look forward to again – awesome!

So, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned from my battles that apply to both business and life:

Lesson 1: We’re not indispensable.

We all like to think our company would fall apart if we’re not there. We’re the glue that holds it all together and makes it all work.

Really?

The old school thinking was that if I make myself indispensable, they can never fire me. Many have now realised (often through painful experience) that if you make yourself indispensable in your role, they can also never promote you!

I love what I do and believe I add real value to our business and our clients. Through my illness, I was out of the business for more than 6 months (which included the second half of our financial year). Guess what? We recorded the best financial result in the 9 years we’ve had the business!

My amazing wife, Olivia, on top of coping with all I was going through and the extra stress it put on her personally and with the family, led the business superbly and kept things not just on track, but oversaw a period of real growth – incredible!

But the other factor was that others stepped in and up! We have an amazing team – absolutely the best we’ve had in the time we’ve owned the business. Not only did people have the skills to lift their performance when we really needed it, they cared enough to want to!

When you have great people, an environment where people want to perform and awesome clients who allow you to do great work, it doesn’t have to be all about you!

Lesson 2: We are more resilient then we think.

I could never have imagined that I would have been able to cope with some of the things I’ve faced over the past few months. From suffering from claustrophobia to what seemed to be a low pain threshold (I was a total pusskins, as our 18 year-old would say), I didn’t cope well with some stuff.

Or so I thought.

It seems that I could deal with so much more than I’d ever have imagined. Tight spaces in MRI and PET CT scanners, wearing a skin-tight mask and being strapped to a table every day for 6 weeks for radiotherapy, countless needles in all sorts of places – it quickly became the norm. I got to a point very quickly where I was able to see it for what it was – a necessary step that would get me to where I needed to be.

And I’m not special. Meaning, the human body and spirit has an incredible capacity to deal with whatever we need to in order to survive and move forward. We are hard-wired to cope – actually, I believe we can do more than cope, when we really need to.

Be strong and trust that you have an incredible machine with an amazingly powerful CPU to drive it!

Lesson 3: The silver lining is there – sometimes you just need to look a little harder.

Life is not easy at times. In fact, sadly, it seems to be pretty tough for lots of people I know. We all face challenges and many test us more than we think we can handle. But among the difficult times, we can often find some rays of light – if we open our eyes to look for them.

Having major surgery in my mouth and neck was no walk in the park. The radiotherapy that followed was even less so. I won’t detail all of the horrendous impacts on my body, but one of those was a severe restriction on my jaw mobility (trismus), along with a severely constricted throat. Both of those made eating a real challenge (still do, actually), which is not much fun. Burgers, steak, pork belly and the like are but a distant memory – even the humble French fry isn’t easy.  I’m limited in what I can eat, I need to cut my food up into very small pieces and it takes so long to eat a meal.

But here’s the thing.  I’ve battled my weight all my adult life, trying most diets going and have probably lost more weight in total than my current body weight.  But I’m now 24 kgs lighter than before my first surgery (admittedly, I went on an eating spree in the couple of weeks beforehand, knowing I wouldn’t be eating normally for a while, so added a few kgs).  Even better, it seems that I can’t put on weight!  My restrictions mean I eat a lot of high carb, high fat foods (pastas with cream sauces – yum!) and struggle with vegetables and a lot of traditional protein, yet have remained the same weight for the last 6 months!  One realisation I’ve had is that I eat a lot less now – it seems that how much you eat is as much a contributor to weight gain as what you eat (who’d have thunk it???)!

So, a definite silver lining from the cancer journey is that I’m the lightest I’ve been for years and my energy levels are the best they’ve been for a long time.  It’s a very drastic weight-loss plan (I wouldn’t recommend it!), but I’ll take it among all the crap I’ve had to deal with!

So those silver linings are out there. No matter how bleak things might seem, go looking for those bright spots – you might be surprised at what you find.

Lesson 4: There’s the important stuff – then there’s just stuff.

It’s so easy in the fast-paced world we live in to get caught up in the day-to-day of life – working, eating, sleeping … existing.

And it’s not going not slow down anytime soon.  In fact, the pace of life gets faster by the day and if we’re not careful, we can so easily get sucked into trying to keep on top on the daily grind of life.

We must resist!

When we take the time to reflect on what’s really important in our lives, we can start to make choices that allow us to spend our precious time on the things that really matter.  It’s easy to say and hugely difficult to do – but we need to slow the train down and think about what gives us fulfilment – maybe even joy!

There will always be lawns to mow, washing to fold, stuff to get done.  But we need to make sure we spend time every day doing some things we really want to do – not just the stuff we have to do.  It might not be for long – a 15 minute stroll on the beach, a coffee with a friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with, a family game of cards (remember those?).  Whatever it is that gives your heart a lift, make time every day for at least one thing that brings you joy.

What will yours be for today?

Lesson 5: It’s all about the people.

When you face a potentially life-threatening situation, it really does bring into sharp focus what’s important in your life. Again, it’s so cliché to say, but for me, in business and in life, it’s spending time with the people who are important to you that give your life real meaning.

We can collect lots of stuff that we think will make us happy (cars, houses, toys, etc).  Some people collect lots of people in their life, making friends / acquaintances along the way, like it’s a competition to see who has the most.

I’ve never been someone who has heaps of friends, preferring a select group of close friends who truly matter to me. And what I’ve learned over the past months is that for me, the true measure of success is having people who truly care back – who are there for you when you need them most.  In times like these, lots of people offer support and want to help – and that’s wonderful.  Some go to the next step and act – it might be in small ways (dropping in a meal or three, walking the dog, etc) or dropping everything to be there when you need them most (you know who you are).

It’s not too different in business.  We have a No Dickheads policy at David Forman.  As much as we joke about it, we actually mean it.  And the genuine caring and understanding shown by clients over my health challenges has been really uplifting. We get to work with some truly wonderful people and treasure the relationships we have – real partnerships founded on high trust, respect and genuine caring for each other as people, as much as business partners. It’s really special.

And a word to our amazing DF team.  The heartfelt support and love both Olivia and I have received throughout this challenging time has been beyond what any employer could hope for.  Add to that the way you have all stepped in and stepped up to ensure the business hasn’t just survived but really thrived is a huge credit to each of you – NEVER STOP!

Bonus Lesson (‘cos we all like the FREE Bonus!): It’s all in the mind. 

It’s not – but it’s a massive factor. I’ve always believed that the human mind plays a major part of our physical well-being.  And I’ve now seen the evidence first-hand!

When I left hospital the first time, one of the delightful nurses took me aside and said, “I can predict a patient’s outcome within the first few minutes of meeting them”.  I obviously asked how – was she a soothsayer with a crystal ball?

No.

She replied, “Some patients come in here and are all “woe is me – I might not get through this” while others are “I’m going to beat this thing – you watch me!”.  I could tell within 2 minutes that you were in the second group”.

I was fascinated to hear this.  Here was a nurse of 30 years’ experience saying she could predict medical outcomes based on someone’s attitude and mindset!  It seems too simple, but I believe it to be truer than ever.  I’ve had hundreds of comments about my positive attitude through all of this and I have ZERO doubt that it has played a significant part of me bouncing back so quickly from each of my surgeries (I forgot to mention the gallbladder one in the middle of the 2 cancer ones!) and dealing with the horrible impacts of having my mouth and throat fried by beams of radiation.

The human mind is the most powerful computer ever built.  It’s so powerful that we can talk ourselves into – or out of – just about anything!  It really can.  Let’s use it to channel our thoughts towards positive behaviours that help create great outcomes – we all have it within us!
So, there it is. My 5 (maybe 6) lessons I’ve learned from my cancer journey. Not overly revolutionary but ones that have been pretty important for me.  I hope they help to at the least challenge your thinking and maybe take on board at least one lesson to make your life more rewarding and joyful.

All the best,

Stu.