Cancer is one of those words that stop conversations. Whenever a friend or family member tells you they have cancer, you can't help but be seized by panic. Everyone knows someone who has died from some variation of this dreaded disease. Some are lucky to know a survivor or be one themselves. There was a time not that long ago when cancer had a stigma attached to it, almost as if it were contagious. Today, so much more is known about different forms of cancer and some people freely talk about their experiences with them.
Living with a diagnosis of cancer is always difficult. It requires courage and strength to continue with your life while undergoing difficult treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. But thousands upon thousands of people do it every day. Each one has a different story of facing one's mortality, learning to depend on family, friends and medical professionals and surviving, albeit as a changed person. I heard two such tales last week from leading healthcare executives who have survived cancer. Their willingness to share their observations and experiences may help others who either have cancer or have loved ones with the disease.
Peter Lawson, executive vice president of hospital operations for Health Management Associates in Naples, Fla., was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1987 at the age of 27. He recovered, but in October 2004 he was diagnosed with lymphoma, which is not curable but can be treated effectively with drugs. Now, at 44, he continues to function as a top executive with HMA, but it hasn't been easy.
He told me, "I was on my way to New York to meet with some Wall Street types and give them an earnings report the next day. That evening the doctor gave me the results of my tests and told me I had lymphoma. I was in a state of shock but went on with my responsibilities and gave the presentation the next morning." Lawson says that his wife first suspected he had cancer a year before, even though the doctors didn't believe the lump in his neck was of great significance.
John Hillenmeyer, president and chief executive officer of Orlando (Fla.) Regional Healthcare, had a similar experience. "My doctor confirmed I had prostate cancer five minutes before I was to meet with my board. We had a lot of complicated issues to discuss and I had to focus all my attention on those matters. It wasn't easy."
Lawson and Hillenmeyer say many healthcare executives, having take-charge personalities, may feel that they are immune to the diseases they treat in their hospitals, but the two have news for them: They are just as vulnerable as anyone else when it comes to contracting cancer and other life-threatening conditions. Top executives have a special obligation, which is to inform their board or senior executives of their condition. There's the issue of succession and a need to know what the disease will allow you to do and what you have to give up. These men say it is incumbent upon the person with the disease to make others aware that there is no guarantee their reaction to a prescribed therapy will be positive.
Lawson's was, and aside from losing his hair during chemotherapy he continues to do well with the radiation therapy he receives regularly. Lawson is a classic example of one who continues to function productively and normally with the disease.
After his diagnosis Hillenemeyer, 56, had to wade through all kinds of advice from friends and fellow executives. "There is no definitive treatment for prostate cancer," he says. "Some choose surgery, others the seed route, plus other alternatives. For me it became information overload after a while and it was difficult to make a decision as to which therapy to pursue.
"I finally opted for radiation, and for eight weeks I underwent treatment with virtually no side effects. The treatments are 20 minutes apiece every morning. I didn't miss a treatment."
Both men believe that what they learned about themselves was invaluable. They found out how important it is to have the support of family and friends. Lawson remembers he had been married only a year when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's in 1987. Diane "must have thought she had married a lemon. But I know now she didn't feel that way. I couldn't have survived all I've gone through without her support and companionship. Diane has been terrific. Things that I once took for granted I pay attention to now."
Hillenmeyer says his wife, Gail, was wonderful throughout his bout with cancer. "She was always there for me, as were my children."
Both men say they regained their spirituality in the process of dealing with cancer. One's mortality becomes more exaggerated in the scheme of things and each credits their reconnection with this aspect of themselves as a key to survival.
"None of us is going to live forever," Lawson says. "The real question has to be, did I contribute value to others by leading a balanced life? Did I give of myself to others, including my family, my friends, my colleagues and others? By talking about a disease like cancer and making it clear that it can be cured in some cases and if not cured at least contained and lived with is important for all to know."
It takes courage to confront this disease while not forgetting the responsibilities of important jobs. It shows why both Hillenmeyer and Lawson are true leaders.
Healthcare is a giving business,