Thanksgiving, Cancer, and 5 Lessons about Leadership

This time of year is always such an emotional rollercoaster for me.

Five years ago this month, I woke up early one morning and drove to the hospital. Later that morning, you see, I was scheduled to have part of my kidney removed because of the cancer that had rudely set up shop there.

Odd, the things I remember, and the things I don’t, about that morning. I remember waking up with an epic migraine. I remember driving through the darkness of the early morning with that epic migraine, and remember parking at the hospital, still with that epic migraine.

As I got out of my vehicle, the combination of the migraine and insane amount of anxiety I was feeling combined to make me vomit in the parking lot, though that in and of itself was an exercise in futility due to a process that I had to go through the day before in preparation for the surgery that I’ll not detail here (you’re welcome). It was quite a special moment. Hallmark wanted to make a movie about it, but I declined.

There were lots of other moments that I won’t bore you with. Some of them were funny to me. Others, not so much. I’ve talked about many of them before here, here, here, and here if you’re interested.

This month, though, is five years later; and I find myself feeling incredibly grateful. I also find myself reflecting on lessons learned.

I’m thankful for the dumb, fluke, phantom pain on the other, non-cancer-having side of my abdomen that sent me into the doctor that day five years ago. It was a pain that appeared for a day, was completely unrelated to anything, and was gone a day later.

I’m thankful the doctor ordered a CT of the other, non-cancer-having side of my abdomen, just wanting to check for and eliminate diverticulitis.

I’m thankful the radiologist happened to glance at the far edge of the CT, away from the area he/she was supposed to be looking at, and noticed the tumor on my kidney. The other kidney, on the other side. You see, the thing is, with kidney cancer, not only are you not supposed to get it in your 30’s; but usually, by way later in your life when you start to notice the symptoms typically associated with kidney cancer, it’s too late.

I’m thankful for a lot of things. Five years later, I’m thankful to be alive. I feel like that sounds overly dramatic, but I truly am. Every year this month, I make my annual pilgrimage to the hospital to check if cancer has yet again taken up residence on a kidney (or lymph node, or whatever). And every single year, it affects me. In the weeks leading up to that day, I can feel myself withdrawing a bit. I can feel fear begin to creep in again. If I let my mind go, I can quickly spiral into the darkness of fear and doubt.

But this year, the news was good. “No evidence of recurrence.” My, what sweet music to my ears that phrase is. I’m so grateful, because I know so many aren’t fortunate enough to hear that phrase. Since it’s now been five years, I get to skip next year and go back for my next scan in two years. I’m thankful for that too.

*I’m also incredibly thankful for a lot of the lessons that I’ve had to learn.

Leadership Lesson 1: It’s far easier to talk about vulnerability than it is to actually be vulnerable.

Though my ordeal with cancer was absolutely nothing compared to what so many battle and suffer through with their cancer journeys, it did make me have to wrestle with vulnerability and humanness in ways I hadn’t had to prior to the experience. I didn’t want to tell anyone I had cancer. Not even my parents. I really didn’t. As I mentioned in one of the posts I linked to above, I’m pretty sure that was rooted in selfishness and fear and whatever else, but whatever it was, I wasn’t able to be vulnerable.

It's far easier to talk about being vulnerable than it is to actually *be* vulnerable. #leadership Click To Tweet

Leadership Lesson 2: It drove home the reality that on any given day, people are wandering around the workplace with any number of unstated worries, pains, and fears.

It makes me think of that episode of The Office where Michael is so fixated on his birthday that he doesn’t realize that the rest of the group is trying to support Kevin as he waits to hear back from the doctor about his possible skin cancer. It was funny, as The Office always is; but also poignant, as The Office wasn’t given enough credit for being. Eventually, he comes around, though in typical Michael fashion, he still doesn’t quite get it.

Leadership Lesson 3: It strengthened my resolve to be a servant leader who cared more about people than anything else.

There are folks I’ve worked with that have been so supportive and awesome during these times. There are other folks I’ve worked with — fewer of them — who were horrible to me and most people around them most of the time. Experiencing that fortified my resolve to serve and lead in way that’s different.

Leadership Lesson 4: Cancer — and even the possibility of it — reminds me that there are some things we simply can’t control.

That doesn’t make it easy to accept, but it’s a reality with which we all have to wrestle.

Leadership Lesson 5: Life is short. Do meaningful work.

It may sound cliche, but that doesn’t make it untrue. When you consider that not one of us is guaranteed anything, it forces you ponder the meaning of your work. Why do we do what we do? Is it meaningful? Is it for ourselves? Is it for others? Are others’ lives better as a result of their interactions with us? Has our leadership led people further down the path toward being free, autonomous, and whole human beings?

Life is short. Do meaningful work. #leadership #newwaytowork Click To Tweet

I think I’ve prattled on long enough. Besides, depending when you’re reading this, you’ve either got turkey to get to, football to get to, a nap to get to, leftover turkey to get to, or some antacids to get to.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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