Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Business Lessons Learned in Dealing with Cancer

Following is an article that recently appeared in the 60th anniversary of our company magazine, Move. The feedback has generaly been pretty positive but I'd be interested in yours too. It's a long read and maybe my longest posting ever; hope you are able to make your way through it.

Howard Solomon

When I last appeared on the pages of MOVE magazine back in late 2003, I had written an article titled “Business Lessons Learned From my Experiences as an Endorphin Addict.” The article was exactly as titled; it was an articulation of many of the business lessons that I have learned over the years in my pursuit of athletic endeavors such as triathlons and ultra marathons. In preparation for this article, which I am hoping will serve as a sort of corollary to my 2003 musings, I re-read that article for the first time in many years, and all of my “lessons” still seem to bear relevance today -- at least for me, personally.

And yet when I read that article, it was sadly with a bit of a wizened air. Because in the intervening years I have had a new life “mentor” of sorts (for lack of a better word) emerge not once but twice in my life. This interloper has helped shape my life and worldview and has taught me much greater and deeper life lessons than even endurance sports. And similar to my previous article, many of these lessons can be directly applied to business as well, which is what I will hope to share with you in these pages. But while endurance sports have been uplifting and inspirational, this new intruder has proved to be more of an arch nemesis whom I wish I never knew. Its name is Cancer.

The first time Cancer entered my life was in the fall of 2003, shortly after I wrote the aforementioned article. I was travelling to visit a friend in Baltimore, Maryland, and we had planned out a big training weekend for a 50-mile race that we were running together. Upon landing at the airport, my cell phone lit up immediately; there were three messages from my wife. I knew immediately something was wrong. She told me to sit down and gave me the bad news straightaway; she just learned from her doctor that she had early stage cervical cancer. Once I got over the shock (actually, I still have not gotten over the shock of this news) I told her I was going to the ticket counter to get an immediate return flight home. Her words that day have never left me. She said that there was no way I was to come home; there was nothing that I could do and my immediate return would do nothing but make her feel sick. She concluded by stating as firmly as she’s ever stated anything in her life, “Life goes on.”
I ended up staying in Baltimore that weekend at her insistence. It was a miserable two days but her lesson has stuck with me and embedded within this tale is an important business lesson as well.

Business Lesson One: Life Goes On

Any cancer survivor would probably agree; once you stop feeling sorry for yourself (or your loved one), you have to recognize that life goes on. Establishing a pattern of normalcy, to the extent to which your life is now “normal” and refusing to capitulate is a critical part of one’s battle with cancer. For me, it was beyond critical that I continue to work in an unimpeded manner, even though it was a struggle at times. There was no other way; I was simply not going to let this thing win without a fierce battle.

The same lesson can be applied in business as well. We are living in difficult economic times. People are losing their jobs, their homes, and their life savings. In certain respects, the effect that this can have on one’s life or psyche can be just as impactful as cancer. But you know what? Without trivializing these matters, life goes on and to use a horribly tired cliché, the sun rises tomorrow. I have learned that you should be happy and appreciative to see that sun. The most important thing you can do is put your head down and forge forward with life – while simultaneously keeping open eyes.
I am pleased to say that my wife has recuperated well. While she had to undergo a hysterectomy – which is something no 35 year-old woman should have to experience, she managed to avoid after treatment and she has successfully moved on with her life. I thought I had too, until cancer struck again. This time it struck me.

In a weird way, my love for endurance sports, which continues today, may have saved my life. I moved to San Francisco in late 2005 to help manage Ruder-Finn’s west coast operations. Shortly after relocating, I signed up for an indoor cycling class that would help strengthen me for the upcoming cycling and triathlon season. The class was tremendously difficult and it broke me down and gave me a nasty cold that I couldn’t shake for weeks. I finally gave in and went to see a doctor, something I’m not ordinarily apt to do. The doctor quickly diagnosed me with a case of bronchitis and then suggested that he conduct a physical, as it had been quite some time since my last. He detected a lump on my neck that he found disconcerting and suggested I see an endocrinologist immediately. I will spare you the ensuing saga of test and re-tests and even more tests but little more than a month later I was diagnosed with stage two papillary thyroid cancer. Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is a call I hope one never receives, but in a certain respect, I have never been more grateful for a case of bronchitis. As noted, it very well could have saved my life. There’s another important lesson embedded within this anecdote as well.

Business Lesson Two: Go to The Doctor. Regularly.

I was 39 years old at the time of my diagnosis and at the top of my game fitness wise. As a somewhat accomplished triathlete and runner (albeit middle of the packer) I saw no reason to go to the doctor proactively. It’s not too far off the mark to state that this poor decision making very well could have cost me my life. I think the metaphor holds true in business as well; from time to time, you need to see the doctor. What I mean is that even if your business is prospering, you sometimes need to stop for a check in. Perhaps you need to bring in an outsider (a boss, a consultant, a mentor) or maybe you can achieve this through careful analysis and introspection, but from time to time it’s important to step back, look at what you are doing dispassionately – or better yet, ask someone else to look at it for you -- and ask yourself: is my business truly healthy? If you look at things objectively and ask the right set of questions, you’ll find that there is always room for improvement. You will also find that find that these periodic visits to a “doctor” can often help avoid catastrophe over the long term.

About two weeks after my diagnosis, I had surgery to remove my thyroid gland and eight lymph nodes that also tested positive for cancer. My recovery from surgery was difficult from the standpoint that I was unable to exercise for several weeks and my body had to learn how to adapt to synthroid, a synthetic hormone that I now need to take every day for the rest of my life to compensate for my missing thyroid gland. I also needed to prep for a massive dose of radiation therapy, which was scheduled for two months after my surgery. The objective of the radiation was to ablate any remaining cancer cells. I will spare you the details of my radiation, but suffice to say, it was a pretty miserable six weeks.

This post-surgery, pre-radiation juncture was the only point in time during my entire ordeal that I started to feel bad for myself. More than anything, and perhaps foolishly in the grand scheme of things, I was upset that I had to miss the upcoming triathlon and running season, which I was preparing diligently for.
A few weeks before my diagnosis I had signed up for a very popular half ironman triathlon in Sonoma County. Given that it was scheduled to take place eight weeks after my surgery, I didn’t think there was any chance of participating. I was bummed, to put it mildly; I had planned on this being my big race for the year and up until my diagnosis, my training had been going very well.

The Monday before the race, I called my coach and asked what he thought about possibly participating. I had resumed easy swimming, biking and running but had done nothing I would consider “training” per se. I was concerned that the distance – 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run, might prove too much for someone who was less than 90 days outside of fairly extensive neck surgery. His four word response, much like my wife’s noted earlier, has stayed with me all these years. A man of few words, he simply said “you can do this.” And he was right. I decided then and there it a go, recognizing the worst thing that could happen is that I’d have to drop out if it proved to be too difficult.

Business Lesson Three: You Can Do This – Shoot for the Moon

The plan we formulated focused on nothing more than getting me to the finish line safely and in one piece. Any sense of racing for time was thrown straight out the window. For the first time in my life, I went into a race thinking I could realistically finish last. And the beautiful and liberating thing was that I could not care less. The short story is that I finished the race. I suffered greatly but I enjoyed every single moment. I didn’t finish last, but it was the slowest race I have ever run in my life. And it was also my most memorable. Over the years I have run literally hundreds if not a thousand races, but this is the one that stands out. For the first time, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I felt like an Olympic gold medalist in terms of what I had accomplished under difficult circumstances.

The business lesson here? Dare to dream big. Set forth a goal that scares the living crap out of you and seems unattainable and go for it – but go for it in a methodical, sensible fashion. And if you need someone to coach you through it, like I did for my race, then so be it. If you ultimately achieve that goal it’s something that will stay with you for a long while. And even if you don’t, there’s consolation in knowing you were brave enough to give it a shot.
Business Lesson Four: Seek the Best Possible Counsel and Accept Nothing Less

The good news about thyroid cancer is that it’s generally considered a “good cancer” in that there is a clear cut treatment path and the mortality rate is very low. Unfortunately for me, I had a few curveballs thrown my way that created some complications. And when this becomes the case, no one assumes a more important role in one’s life than your oncologist, or in my case, my endocrinologist.

On a personal level, I liked my doctor very much. He was personable fellow and had an easygoing manner about him. But what I learned about midway through my case was that his specialty area within endocrinology was diabetes; he knew a bit about thyroid cancer, but not enough to be what I would categorize as an expert. I recognized this early in our relationship, but found myself reticent to change to a new doctor for no other reason than the fact that it’s difficult mentally to make a seismic change when you are smack in the middle of a treatment path. Finally, however, circumstances became such that I felt compelled to make a change. This time, I found one of the world’s leading thyroid specialists at University of California San Francisco, one of the nation’s leading healthcare institutions. The bottom line is that with all due respect to my previous doctor, I am incredibly thankful for my new doctor and I kick myself for not making this change earlier.

I learned a good lesson here and I apply it to business nearly ever day. It’s an easy one, on paper at least, and it has become my new mantra: surround yourself only with top talent and learn to trust that talent implicitly. It sounds trite but don’t compromise quality when it’s quality that really counts. Surround yourself only with the best, whether it’s your employees, business partner, clients, vendors, etc. And certainly, when it comes to your health, it’s tantamount to seek the best counsel and caretakers that you can find. And take the time to do as much research as necessary. Whether in business or in life, research forms the basis for making informed, smart decisions. It’s a truism when it comes to healthcare that you must become your own advocate and leave nothing to chance because no one else will be looking out on your behalf.

Lance Armstrong has long been my hero, even well before we shared the cancer bond. And I believe it was Lance, in one of his books, who stated – and I paraphrase here – that even given the trials and tribulations associated with cancer, if he could go back in time and alter his history such that he would never have had cancer, he’s not certain if he would do so as it has taught him so much about life. I’m not certain that everyone with cancer would necessarily agree with this sentiment, but I do.

Without getting too new-agey, I think much like any hardship in life, you can find embedded within certain “gifts” that are capable of transforming your life for the better. Cancer provided me with the gift of perspective. I thought I understood what it was like to have a measure of perspective, but in looking back, I was mistaken.

Business Lesson Five Maintain Perspective

I’m a type A personality who probably was dosed early in life with a mild splash of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s the only way I can explain why I think running 50 and 100 mile races is actually fun.
But at the same time, when you’re that singularly focused on the task at hand – whether it’s running a long distance event, or bringing in a new client or growing a business – sometimes you lose sight of what’s happening around you and what’s really important in life. I take everything I do in life very seriously – most especially my job – but at the same time, I’m genuinely happy to see the sun rise every morning. Without sounding too maudlin, I have a new appreciation for every day I have on this planet, regardless of any business or personal setback. And there is no getting around the fact that setbacks are bound to happen. It’s what you learn from them that really matters. I’ve also learned that you can control what you control and that to maintain your sanity, especially when the going is tough, you need to maintain some degree of zen about things.

The PR business is particularly difficult given the oftentimes delicate relations with clients, and each day seems to bring forth new challenges. I have learned that maintaining perspective through good times and bad is vitally important to maintaining your mental health. I think it’s an especially noteworthy point, especially in consideration of our bleak financial landscape.
Flash forward to today, early 2009, and I am happy to report that similar to my wife, my health is just fine. I have crossed the chasm from cancer patient, to cancer survivor, and for that, I am enormously thankful.

It’s funny, though, how life is able to throw repeated curveballs. A few years ago I thought I learned all there is to know in business from lessons I had learned from endurance sports.
Little did I know back then, however, that though many of those lessons endure, I would ultimately come to learn far more from a less worthy but far more dangerous adversary. Though I hope to never again see cancer’s ugly face, I’ve taken away from this experience everything positive that I can, and if I have come out of this experience as a better person, parent, husband, and colleague – which I think I have -- then I can say that regardless of how this all might ultimately shake out in the end, it’s a battle I have won.

And that, for me, has been the most important lesson of all.


df said...

That is really good. I'm thinking book deal.

Carrie said...

Very insightful! Sorry we missed you in NJ last weekend.

quirken said...

this is extremely well written and very interesting. great piece for that publication. I read it knowing most of the stories, but still took away from it some valuable life and business ideas.

DM said...

Great piece of writing, my friend. Your best. Glad you posted on your blog so that those of us who don't read Ruder Finn's magazine could have the chance to read it. I agree with df and quirken that the article really does resonate and you may want to share it further.
- Dave

Dave Singer said...


Very thoughtful and personal writing...I loved it.

Much of what you wrote resonated with me, albeit for different reasons than cancer. That said, the cancer metaphor for the challenges thrown our way applies perfectly to your overall message.

I'm reading a decent book right now--it's called, "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" one section the author discusses surrounding yourself with the best people--it's a choice we can all make--as you allude to, it's easier said than done for any number of reasons--personal, professional, emotional, familial.

Anyway, I'm rambling--great writing, a truly inspirational message, and I finished with just one thought--tell me more.


Crazymamaof6 said...

this was awesome! thanks for sharing.

payro said...

Great article Howard, very well constructed, excellent points. Really terrific.

Anonymous said...

great piece how. thanks for sharing.


gailaj said...

I was out of town for a few days, so just got to your piece...which was GREAT. Thanks for sharing it.

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