The year began with some of the best business my company had ever seen. We were signing up new customers. We were one of the Project Management Institute’s few Authorized Training Providers. I couldn’t keep up with the demand on my calendar. From a professional perspective, I could ask no more. Despite the concerns with Covid, I was training as hard as a single trainer could train.
I reflect on the fact that in the early days of the year, I was in love with my client base, my wife, my sons and my life. It was impossible to imagine that life could get any better.
Fast-forward to the middle of the year. Constant stomach upset and fatigue began to plague me. But work remained solid. My diet, which had highlighted a 12-year journey from 283 pounds to 220, suddenly found me in the mid-190’s. Finding doctors was a challenge, until I landed an appointment with Dr. Hudhud at Maryland Oncology in Frederick. He somberly said the words:
You have neuroendocrine cancer of the liver. It’s incurable. The good news is that it’s a slow-growth cancer, so you likely have 2-10 years.
That was 2021. Welcome 2022. We’re now in the 1-9-year window.
What does it take to get to that window? The cancer learning curve.
- You will be upset. No news drives you to tears faster than “It’s incurable.” All of the articles on grief are right except they don’t hit “depression” fast enough. They also don’t discuss the endless parade of doctors that would be impossible to survive without a significant other. My anguish would have be multiplied without the constant support of my wife, Nancy.
- There will be doctors, each believing s/he has the right answer to deal with your malignancy. Despite their confidence, they know only one corner of the cancer world. My first doctor tortured me at the University of Maryland. He had no doubt that his treatment was a proper road for my situation. He was wrong. He just hurt me, revealing (only at the end) that the next rounds of the treatment might have a higher chance of efficacy. If you’re ever in my boat, ask first whether the treatment hurts, and just how badly.
- Keep doctor-hunting until you find someone who actually seems to care about you as a human being. I did that with Dr. Hudhud, except that in the early Fall, he retired. A new search began, and I found a wonderful new oncologist, Dr. Mavromatis. She’s close by, she’s interested in the case, and of the half-dozen oncologists I’ve spoken with, she’s the only one that seemed genuinely interested in me.
- Your friends are genuinely interested in you. YEAH! I couldn’t have imagined that. The cards, gifts and e-mails will pour in. I have friends that came out of the woodwork when they found out that I was diagnosed. The challenge is that they won’t know precisely how to have the conversation. (The best way to let them off the hook is to start any phone call with I only have about 10 minutes, if that’s OK…). People won’t know how to talk with you, but if it’s time-limited, it’s a lot easier to manage. Frankly, if you’re in the middle of chemo, 10 minutes is a good window. What do you tell them?
- Explain the diagnosis clearly and simply. Avoid the details of your procedures, as it doesn’t generally help. They want to know the type of cancer, how long you may still have on this earth, and what the doctors have said (at a layman’s level).
- Move on to your plans for the future. Talk about the support you’re getting and the significant others who are helping you.
- Move on to your plans for them for the future. Tell them how often to call, how much you appreciate them, and how you’d like to integrate them with your day-to-day.
- End the conversation in a timely fashion.
I had a boss at WASH-FM—Tom Durney—who called me into his office after morning drive one day on the air. Carl, you were very funny this morning. That was some great schtick. But I need you to change one thing. Make it shorter. You were talking for about 30 seconds. Trim that down to ten or fifteen. I remember thinking that he didn’t understand. I was funny for a straight 30 seconds! That was a great bit of airtime. And then Tom said I had forgotten a fundamental rule of being an on-air personality:
Leave them wanting.
How does that tie into your cancer conversations? If any party leaves the other wanting, both sides win. You don’t feel compelled to keep it going. There’s a beauty to feeling like it would be fun to keep going after the best moments have passed, when the reality is that you want to end on the best moments.
This is all critical to the living-with-cancer learning curve. It’s also critical to enjoying the last decade, years, months or days of your life.
When I found out I was on the exit ramp for life, my wife was the one who reminded me that I had the option to do what I want. I have the option to deal with my friends as I want. Since life has a clearer expiration date, I should take full advantage of doing and saying what is meaningful to me. I have a different set of options for 2022, granted to me by my diagnosis. I count myself honored and blessed…
For my wife
For my sons
For my extended family
For my personal friends
For my professional friends
For my business associates
For my faith
For you, for taking the time to consider these words.
I finish this blog the way I used to finish all of my classes. If there’s anything I can do to support you in your efforts, I’m only an e-mail away. firstname.lastname@example.org I’m the cost of an e-mail.