What Cancer Taught Me About Leadership: Part 2

Put your arms over your head.


I can tell you’ve done this before.

“First, that’s what she said. Second, yes, I’ve been through this drill before.”

Thus went the conversation this morning between the CT attendant and me. As I mentioned a couple days ago, November is a big month for me. Today was my two-years-since-having-part-of-my-kidney-hacked-out-because-of-a-cancerous-tumor CT appointment. You know, to be sure the cancer cells haven’t forgotten the not-so-subtle hint of literally having them cut out of my body. If only the cancer could grasp the symbolism, cancer would understand that I have no interest in hanging out with them anymore.

I hate these cancer checks for a couple of reasons at least. One of these reasons, as dumb as it sounds, is that I hate needles. I hate the way they look. I hate the way they feel when they go in. I hate being able to feel them inside my arm moving around. I hate everything about them.

As soon as I sit down in the chair to get the IV, I start getting light-headed and nauseous. My hands start sweating, I can’t sit still, and I think that on account of my nerves I just start rambling about anything and everything. “Hey, have you noticed that ceiling tile? What a lovely shade of off-white.”

It’s funny watching the staff try to calm down a grown man who is obviously super nervous before something that a lot of people think is a minor thing: the needle and IV. But I can’t help it. I can see the patronizing looks on their faces, but it doesn’t matter to me. I just keep on babbling. Anything to keep my mind off the nurse digging around my arm with that needle in the same way we scrape all around the sides and bottom of a peanut butter jar with our butter knives.

I see the little girl next to me rolling her eyes as she effortlessly watches her needle go into her arm and glances over at me as if to say, “Really, tough guy?”

Following the CT, I strolled by the Oncology area, clutching my still bleeding puncture wound and trying to figure out if the room was spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Oncology areas have a very different feel to them. Those who have been in one know what I mean. It seems quieter. Heavier. There aren’t many kids running around the waiting room shrieking gleefully as their mother buries her head in a Vogue magazine and pretends the kids aren’t hers.

But being in that Oncology waiting room–whether it was today or any other time in the past couple years–does something to me. I’m sure it varies from person to person, but for me, it’s a little sobering. It tends to put things at least somewhat closer to being in perspective for me I guess. Things that seem really awful to me outside that Oncology area–things that aren’t cancer-ish–start to feel a little smaller and a lot less significant.

I mean, just think about the stuff that passes as a crisis on our Facebook news feeds.

Awww, you stubbed your toe on the way out the door to get into your Cadillac this morning? That must be so hard for you. And how you managed to find the strength to post it on Facebook is beyond me.

Bummer. Someone was rude to you in the grocery store checkout line? How devastating. I admire you for being able to pick up the pieces of your shattered life and post the whole experience on Facebook.

Oh man. Your Crossfit cul…er…group is going to be really, really mad when they read on your Facebook status how disappointed you are to have only lost 9 pounds in the last two hours. You’ll probably need to join a support group after the Crossfit gang ostracizes you.

I’m being silly, of course; but that’s how ridiculous some stuff starts to look when sitting in that waiting room. You see a little boy who’s lost all of his hair as a result of chemo and suddenly the stuff that we make out to be a big freaking deal just seems not to be anymore.

We complain every seven seconds about something that’s not up to the standard of amazing that we think we deserve, not realizing that we actually have it pretty good compared to an awful lot of folks. One out of every two Facebook posts is a complaint about this or that, right? Try complaining about the price of the private preschool your kid goes to when you’re sitting next to one that just hopes to see kindergarten.

This happens in day-to-day organizational life too, doesn’t it? The CEO changes the color of the tile in the bathroom without consulting the whole organization first and it becomes an epic drama the likes of which we’ve not seen since the late ’90’s on Mystery Science Theater.

Or, there’s that thing where anytime an organization goes through other changes, there’s always at least a small contingent of folks who complain about almost everything related to the change–the change itself, the speed of the change, the scope of the change, the rationale for the change, who’s “in charge” of the change, their involvement or lack of involvement in the change, and so on. I’m not saying organizations don’t botch change efforts–they do. I’m just saying that as humans within organizations, sometimes it might be helpful for us to get some perspective and realize that the changes we’re experiencing aren’t the end of the world; and further still, we may actually live through them.

In leadership, as in life, perspective is huge. It’s frustrating to me when I think about how much I find to complain about when really I should be grateful. Or how often something that’s relatively insignificant gets me all worked up.

We snap at somebody because our pride’s been wounded. We lose our temper because someone laughs too loud in the next cubicle. We sell our souls so we can move up the corporate ladder and get an office that’s six square feet bigger and has a nice view.

Perspective tells us that maybe we’re better off than we think. Maybe we need to do a gut check to be sure we’re thinking well and being more appropriately human. Maybe we need to scoot back from our desks and laptops and iPads and iPhones for a second and get a little perspective on things, starting with ourselves. I know I need to.

I think that maybe we should all make monthly trips to an Oncology waiting room. Who knows. It might help.

10 thoughts on “What Cancer Taught Me About Leadership: Part 2

  • Matt – this is so true. I don’t wish for anyone to have to go through what you’ve gone through but some sort of little reminder is a good thing. Perspective changes everything. Plus I so appreciate your mention of needle-fear. I share this completely – can’t even see a needle on TV without breaking into a sweat. Recently have had to have my share of blood taken and needles and while it gets easier, I still stare at the ceiling and prepare myself for a fainting spell every time. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  • Matt – sending you hugs from Texas as you celebrate this anniversary. Life is all about perspective. All to often we take our many blessings for granted. A number of folks have had a really difficult week in the north east, and have a long struggle ahead. Time for people to focus on the positive and work to make this old world of ours a better place. Stay passionate my friend!

    • Thanks, Janine. One thing I dig about you is how passionate and encouraging you are to everyone and anyone you think needs it.

  • Hi Matt,
    Beautiful post! I am a cancer survivor too – 5 years. Right before reading this I was fussing about something involving my corporate gig. Read this and everything is back into perspective!

    Thank you,

  • Matt. I wish you well. I spent lots of time in oncology with my husband. I know exactly what you mean. And I relate to how you feel. The partner feels it too. As for leadership, the concerns are petty most of the time. And cancer is real life. Leadership- gamemanship most of the time.
    What cancer can teaches about leadership. Find something really important to stress about. Real life is harder than leadership- any day, any time.

  • Matt, thanks for providing this perspective. When my wife was fighting cancer, I felt much the same way. Everything else looks so small in comparison and you wonder how the world keeps moving on when you’re fighting for your own existence. I’m all for those monthly visits, though reading your post counts as one because you put us right there.

  • Matt,
    I’ll be thinking of you as you await your results. (That’s another roller-coaster ride.)

    Perspective – such an important tool to keep sharp. It’s the one that allows us to be grateful, to remember that things could be worse, much, much worse. It’s the tool that allows us to undress our stress, so that we are able to gain even more perspective.

    All the best.


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