Remember, Remember, the Month of November (Or, What Cancer Taught Me about Leadership: Part 1)

November’s a big month for me.

Two years ago this November I was just counting down the days until I went into surgery to have a cancerous tumor removed from my kidney. I’m told you’re not supposed to get kidney cancer when you’re 30. I’m told that a lot of times kidney cancer goes undetected until symptoms show up, and by that point it’s often too late.

The more time that passes between then and the present, the more I think I can make out what the heck was going on in my head at that point. Cancer gave me this certain helpless, bewildered, scared feeling. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was anything I could do about the cancer, because I knew the surgery was coming. But in some ways, cancer is going to do its thing whether we like it or not.

It sounds cliché I guess, but I remember so clearly the conversation with my doctor a few weeks prior. I had gone in with some weird, phantom abdominal pain, which actually turned out to be nothing. It was entirely unrelated to the cancer. So after my doctor told me he didn’t see anything on the scan that would indicate I had a kidney stone or diverticulitis, the conversation went something like this:

Him: “We did see something else on the scan.”

Me: “OK…”

Him: “We found a tumor on your left kidney.”

Me: “…”

Him: “We need to check this out. It might be nothing and it might be something. We just won’t know for sure until we check.”

Me: “…”

You know that sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you realize something awful? Yeah, you know the feeling. I do too. But this was that multiplied by ten.

It was a pretty surreal time. I had an odd struggle though between when I found out and when I had the surgery. I wasn’t even sure exactly why, but I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want to have to say that I had cancer. I didn’t want to hear people give me reassuring words. I didn’t want people I cared about to worry about it. It was either selfless or selfish of me, and most days I’m not sure which it was. Probably the latter.

But deep down, that helpless feeling I mentioned earlier blossomed into something else: fear. It wasn’t really that I thought I was going to die or anything. At least not yet. It was just the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen at all. Would they be able to get it out? Would they be able to get all of it out? Would it come back afterward? What was the surgery going to be like? Would I just be lying there, splayed open while the surgeons poked and prodded about on their quest to rid my body of part of itself? What would recovery be like? Would it be intense pain? Maybe just dull pain? How long until I’d be “normal” again? Would I be normal again?

This situation was formative for me from a multitude of perspectives, and even from a leadership perspective. I talk a lot about the necessity of leaders being open and vulnerable, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I often ramble about the fact that leaders and their teams share their mutual humanness in common, and that that should enable us to more readily admit weaknesses and shortcomings to each other. We should be able to ask for help. We should be able to admit fear. Or insecurity. Or doubt.

It was hard for me to do any of that.

During those weeks especially, there were huge chunks of time where I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t even get myself to tell my parents at first. I didn’t want my friends to know. If I’d had my way, I’d rather just have waited until after the surgery and sent out a quick email. “Hey family and friends. Just a quick note–Had cancer. They cut it out. I should be good now. Thanks.”

You see, it’s not nearly as easy to do these difficult things as we might make it out to be on our blogs or during our talks or our consulting or whatever else. The world outside of our blogs and conferences can be a hard, hard place; and there are always oodles of folks going through stuff that’s worse than we are at any given point.

In some ways I guess it’s just further evidence that part of our lives as not just leaders, but also humans, is about figuring out ways to become just that–more human. It’s about wrestling with ourselves sometimes. It’s about facing fear–real fear–and being OK with being afraid sometimes.

We’re not invincible. Not as leaders, and certainly not as humans. This month is a good reminder of that for me. For the rest of my life, November will elicit memories of cancer, surgery, recovery, etc. Many Novembers to come I’ll be getting scanned for more cancer. Nestled deep in the recesses of my twisted little mind will always be the understanding that it could come back at some point.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. I hope I live and lead like it will, and I hope that if it does I’ll handle it differently and be more open not only with the fear, uncertainty, and emotions; but also the reality that I’m struggling with all of those things.

Like I said, it’s a big month for me. I’m guessing more of this might spill onto the blog this month. Hope you’ll bear with me.

22 thoughts on “Remember, Remember, the Month of November (Or, What Cancer Taught Me about Leadership: Part 1)

  • I will bear with you:) I find your posts well-written, informative and engaging. I read every one.

    I think sometimes, as leaders, we feel compelled to “hold it all together”/ “hold it all in”…be that rock that everyone expects us to be. I wish for you the release and freedom from that nagging little thought in your mind that “it could all come back”. I will yell loudly so you can’t hear it:) Cheers! Kaarina

  • Thank you for sharing the growth you experienced and continue to experience from adversity. I am really enjoying your posts. I am looking forward to the insights you will be sharing as you stand on your soapbox this month and reflect upon your journey.

  • I so appreciate you sharing this. Your other articles are great and keep ’em coming, but it’s the posts like this that help me (as a reader) to understand the deeper intentions of your work, what you’ve been through as a human being and mostly, what makes you human. Gratitude to you Matt.

    Novembr is big for me too, but for a different reason. Two years ago I adopted a little rescue pup who was slated to be shot at an overflowing shelter. Since then, I have never known such incredible joy (even when I wanted to kill her for peeing everywhere in the beginning I loved her even then!). So, even though the November rains are coming and everything is letting go, I associate this time of year with the moment she looked at me and made me her human because I haven’t been the same since. But really, it sounds like the same is true for you. Hugs to you.

    • Oh, Sabrina, I know that feeling that rescue dogs give you! My husband and I have two. We got them when they were six months old and this week they will be four…already!!

      You don’t need me to tell you this (but I’m going to anyway): You did such a good thing when you rescued that pup! Thanks for sharing.

  • I could practically say “ditto.” Except mine would be September 2008 and the cancer would be colon. After surgery to remove 1/3 of my colon and 6 months of chemo I am still alive and kicking mightily 🙂
    The entire experience has brought me a tremendous amount of perspective about all kinds of things. The not knowing if it will ever come back is the hardest part, but I try to be a good student of what it had to teach me and pray that will be enough.
    Thanks for your post…

  • Matt, thanks for sharing something so personal…a truly life-changing experience for you. Some leaders are afraid to show their human side; I’m glad you aren’t one of them.

    • Thanks, Cathy. I’m one that has big struggles with that. I know it’s what I should do, but when it comes down to doing it, it’s really hard sometimes. But again, thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  • Hi Matt, thanks for sharing your feelings and thoughts. My month is June, wondering with each check that it may recur. I think because I had no symptoms but good luck on my side that it was found early, one always wonders if it’s lurking in the background.
    I also think that once you verbalise the illness it becomes a fact. Denial? I didn’t know if I could handle other people’s emotions.
    We put incredible pressure on ourselves. It certainly makes us take stock of our lives.
    Thanks again

  • Boy can I relate!!! And you reminded me that November is my cancer month, too. 2001. Great insight. Thanks for sharing.

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