Life Lessons 101

Seeking truths amid personal crisis

I truly enjoy the experience of learning, that moment when you suddenly know something new – the “aha” or insight when you finally get it. It becomes a part of you.

This past year I faced a challenge that gave me a unique opportunity for learning – about life and living. What started as a routine annual physical ended with the discovery of a lump in my breast. I had a previous “cyst scare” years ago, resulting in yearly mammograms, just in case. So I wasn’t too anxious this time – nothing had shown up on my last mammogram. And there had been no history of any cancer in my family. Besides, I was in the best physical health I’d been in years. Yet each stage of the diagnosis led me closer to the realization that this was cancer. Cancer. The very word creates panic, a profound and primal sense of fear.

This is not an easy story for me to share, and I was quite reluctant to do it. At times, it felt self-indulgent. Other times it stirred up emotions I thought I’d already worked through. Mostly I didn’t feel it was that interesting. It’s just my particular journey. Eventually I realized that by writing my reflections I might give back just a little of the support and encouragement that has blessed me this year.

I teach that a good manager immerses herself in reality. You dream big, yet ground yourself in the truth. This lesson resonates more clearly for me now. I like the truth. I’m tired of denial or wishing things were different. It’s much more freeing simply to accept the facts. So I used my research skills and explored the real world of breast cancer. I learned a lot of new terms and I learned what others had to share. It was an education I hadn’t planned.

Being a professor gave me a useful perspective to learn about the physical and emotional aspects of living with cancer. I learned how to find and partner with excellent professionals. As a professor I could dialogue knowledgeably with my doctors, each of us bringing our own expertise and playing our respective parts. My role was team leader.

Work was my anchor, a touchstone. I was fortunate to be able to schedule treatments around my class schedule, and my College of Business colleagues let me focus on teaching. My work felt less like an obligation and more like a special privilege, a place where I didn’t have to be my cancer, where I could just be a teacher.

One of the most difficult teaching experiences I’ve ever had was announcing to a classroom full of students that I had cancer. I debated over whether to even tell my students, not because I wanted to hide my illness, but more because I wasn’t sure it was relevant. I wondered if I could teach others about being an authentic leader without being authentic myself. So, when I was going through chemotherapy and would look different, I told my students.

This question of authenticity – being true to yourself and others – affected me so much that I delivered a session on it during a management teaching conference last summer. Determining an acceptable degree of authenticity in the classroom can be difficult. Do I share every personal detail? Do I conceal it and pretend it never happened? The answer is to find a balance between what feels right and what others truly need to know as part of their own learning experience. How my students reacted reaffirmed my belief in being authentic. Lesson learned: Trust yourself and trust others.

Socrates claimed we all possess inner truths. He felt that learning meant asking good questions, ones that would lead us to answers we already know. Some lessons feel this way. We already know them and just need to rediscover them. Here are some of the truths I observed on my recent quest. A few of the lessons I learned relate directly to my cancer treatment.

I’m not good at worrying so why bother. I never worried about getting cancer. Instead, I had spent useless time worrying about things that never happened. It never crossed my mind that I would have cancer. Even when we discovered a lump, I just couldn’t get too concerned. The odds were in my favor. It occurred to me that the one thing I didn’t worry about happened and all of the other bad things did not. Worrying plainly is not my strong suit. I’m not good at it. So I’m giving it up.

I am not my hair. Or rather my lack of hair. Losing my hair meant that I was truly ill. It changed my identity from normal to sick. At least, that’s how I felt. It was less about the hair itself; I knew that it would grow back. It was about complete strangers making judgments; everyone would know I was sick. It’s funny how important that was to me, to appear healthy. Losing my hair made me question who I was, and I answered that I was more than my appearance. I am not my cancer. While it was a part of me, cancer did not define me. My identity did not change. Interestingly, my essence became even stronger. In the end, the irony was that losing my hair meant gaining a deeper understanding of who I am.

Other insights came from the experience of living with cancer. Anyone can get this disease. The important thing is how you deal with it. And, for me, the biggest lesson was how lucky I was to catch it early. Even though I didn’t worry about getting cancer, I still did what I could to prevent it or to benefit from early detection and treatment. Others are not so fortunate. My life lessons might be different if I hadn’t had a strong belief that I would be cured.

There are many gifts waiting to be received. Phenomenal medical professionals – receptionists, doctors, radiation technicians and nurses – were all there for me when I needed them. Family and friends were willing to share their stories, open their hearts, and to just be with me. The gifts weren’t always what I expected. Sometimes those that love you are paralyzed with their own fears. Yet people continued to show up for me in wonderful ways. I felt the support of so many people. In the middle of chemotherapy, when I would have a momentary panic, I would remember who was praying for me, feel their compassion and experience peace.

I love what I do. With cancer I now had the perfect reason to drop anything from my life that wasn’t essential. “Sorry, can’t do that. I have cancer, you see.” An easy excuse. Yet I never wanted to drop my work. Instead, I gained a renewed sense of why I teach.

Cancer made me a stronger teacher. Somehow it seemed even more clear to me what the essential objectives of a course were or where was the best place to put my energy. Paradoxically, cancer also made me more vulnerable as a teacher. I was only too human. I had limitations; I was ill. I learned that being vulnerable, however, was its own strength. I connected with my students much better as a human than I ever did as an impeccable professor.

Living each day, one day at a time, does work. I felt my worst when I was anticipating pain or  discomfort, wondering what would come next and if I could handle it. I felt my best when I focused on the present. I tried to show up, to be there throughout my treatments, faculty meetings and classroom discussions.

Let go. Let things happen at their own time and pace. Life is the little things – laughing with a kind cashier, watching your child do his homework, and holding your husband’s hand. I learned that everything doesn’t have to be a lesson. Sometimes it just is what it is – a bad day, a deep fear, a feeling of joy. It simply is.

Lessons learned are not discovered and then crossed off a list to be filed away. I still worry. I still struggle with letting go of the past and worrying about the future. I still forget what’s truly important on way too many occasions. My guess is that these are lessons I will continue to learn many times.

I currently am cancer-free. That may change in the future. Or I may never experience cancer again. It’s unknown to me, another uncertainty. We all face uncertainties about tomorrow. I’m learning not to worry about that. Remember, I’m not good at worrying anyway.

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