Transforming "Pain into Purpose" to Help Cancer Patients
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Passion for learning emerged as an essential element of business early in my career and is a foundational element of WWT's success over our 30-plus-year history. I would even go as far as to say that an organization's learning culture is one of the most significant drivers of business impact for our employees, partners and customers.
In 2017, I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer — specifically in my tongue, floor of mouth and neck. Throughout my cancer journey over the last five years, I've found the rigorous focus on learning that drives business impact in our company's culture and the critical role that learning has in the fight against cancer are very similar.
Following my diagnosis, I was given a 50 percent chance of survival within five years. It was an excruciating, exhausting experience that forced me to think differently about life. But after multiple surgeries and rounds of radiation, a healthy dose of grit and determination, and a vast support system, I'm proud to call myself a cancer survivor!
Learning was one way to get through the darkest of days during my journey. Today, learning, mentoring, and giving back are a few of the ways I leverage my experience to parlay pain into purpose and help others in their journeys.
A cancer diagnosis is like entering a new reality at a moment's notice — information is flying at you faster than you can process, you're constantly exposed to new terminology, and the complexities and interdependencies are overwhelming. It can be difficult to even know how to keep moving forward.
Leveraging all my resources to learn as much as possible about what to expect and how to cope was critically important. From the point of diagnosis through every experience that followed, I learned a lot, and as I reflect, five key words/themes emerge.
- Difficult: Cancer treatment was the most difficult thing I've ever been through and was an experience I wouldn't put on even my worst enemy.
- Humbling: It's always humbling to hear you have cancer. For me, it was particularly humbling because I was so helpless and needed help just to eat and bathe.
- Blessed: People are usually surprised when I mention being blessed. But I'm here writing this article today, which means I'm blessed to still be here at all. And I was blessed with my amazing care givers, led by my amazing wife, Kim, and family.
- Reflection: When I couldn't speak for a long period of time, it gave me a lot of time to reflect on the past, present and future. That was valuable time for me to think about what was important and why.
- Choices: Everyone has choices in life. But in your cancer journey, there are tough ones to make in order to persevere, move forward and challenge yourself.
Some people are uncomfortable sharing their experience with cancer. For me, sharing my story is like medicine. The more I talk about my journey with others — specifically with cancer patients — the more I learn about what people are struggling with and the better equipped I am to educate and provide insights to other patients, their families, their network of caregivers, medical providers and organizations like the American Cancer Society.
The more insights we can gather and information we can spread, the greater the impact we can make on cancer awareness, prevention, patient care and survivorship.
Several years back I was asked to mentor a young woman who was really struggling with her cancer, which was in recurrence. She felt defeated and said she was tired of fighting. She surprised me when she asked: "Why do you fight?"
No one had ever asked me that before. But she needed guidance from someone who had been through it. Taking the time to put into words the reasons I felt compelled to fight five years ago and the reasons I still fight today was a surprisingly moving moment that stands out from all of my interactions with cancer patients.
Here are my thoughts on the five reasons I fought:
- I was fighting because I didn't want to die. Pretty simple really. I didn't want to die.
- I was fighting for my family. I still had many memories I wanted to make with my wife and kids, and, God willing, grandkids in the future.
- I was fighting with all of my fellow cancer patients who were fighting just as hard as I was. No one fights alone, and I wanted to fight alongside them.
- I was fighting for those who fought valiantly but lost their battle to cancer and honor their legacy.
- I was fighting for a purpose. I knew there was something else out there and wanted to fight to see what that was.
Remembering and honoring loved ones, family, friends, and WWT employees that fought with hope, courage, and strength, but lost their cancer battle, such as Rob Ebert, Mark Frederickson, Greg Stubblefield and so many others.
A key pillar in my experience of turning pain into purpose is giving back.
One way I've had an opportunity to give back is through serving as board chair of the Missouri chapter of American Cancer Society's CEOs Against Cancer. One of their many events that drive awareness about cancer prevention is the Fit2BeCancerFree Challenge, a virtual step-tracking fitness challenge that promotes cancer prevention efforts in our workplaces by reinforcing the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
Additionally, this three-week effort is a great way to raise funds that are invested into grants that allow health systems to offset the cost of patient transportation for screening appointments. We celebrated the fifth St. Louis Challenge in April of this year.
With the significance of this being the fifth St. Louis Challenge — as well as the personal milestone of being five years removed from when I was diagnosed and treated for cancer — it seemed fitting to focus this year's challenge on the number five.
I set a goal for the kick-off of 65,000 steps (in one day!) — a 5 percent increase over my step count from last year — and wound up beating that benchmark with 73,000 steps. It was an incredible day, and you can see my thoughts here:
As a WWT team of over 500 strong through the three week challenge, we walked over 66.4 million steps, covering a collective 31.5 miles, and raised over $15,000 to fund critically important American Cancer Society programs.
I'm proud of our WWT team for stepping up!
As I reflect on what I have learned over the past five years, here are steps (five of them!) that each and every one of us can take as we navigate a cancer journey, whether as a patient, family member, caregiver or part of the community:
- Leverage resources like the American Cancer Society to seek out information and share information about the importance of cancer screening, early detection and how leading a healthy and active lifestyle can help prevent cancer.
- If you're a cancer patient, learn all you can about your diagnosis and treatment or side effects. Or if you're a caregiver or family member, learn about what you can expect or how you can help.
- Be ferociously optimistic, focus on setting and achieving goals, persevere and believe in the power of choices, and recognize how an overall positive mindset impacts living through or supporting a cancer journey.
- Celebrate a loved one who is or has fought cancer. Or become an advocate for cancer treatment and research.
- No one fights alone. Get involved by giving your time or resources to help support the American Cancer Society's mission.
While this has been a very difficult journey for me, I'm reminded of a quote by my good friend, John O'Leary, who said "You can't always choose the path you walk in life, but you can always choose the manner in which you walk it"