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