As what will go down as the highlight of my career thus far, I was absolutely honored to give a TEDx talk in Sarasota this week. The theme, Harmonious Havoc, focused on taking a negative situation and turning it into something that could, as my friend Travis puts it, change theIR world.
I walked into this opportunity a little bit like a deer in the headlights not knowing what to expect. People like organizer Judy Winslow and my coach Jerry Jordan were beyond supportive. People like Angela Hager and Nancy Jenkins turned getting an answer to every question I had into an art form. Well, every question but one: “What the hell am I doing here?!”
I remember asking myself that exact question during my first and third rounds of chemotherapy. For my first, my dad came with me and sat with me for the entire four hours. My dad is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and he never uttered a discomforting word. Come to think of it, he didn’t utter a word at all. I was scared, but I was not very good at sharing my feelings at 29, so while I stayed silent, so did my dad. I knew he was in pain, and since neither of us could talk about it, I asked him to just drop me off from then on, which he so graciously did.
Day 2, I tried to break out of my shell. I walked into the chemo ward, which is basically a big square room with a nurse’s station in the center, surrounded by recliners and those “semi-private curtains” that you can pull around you. I decided to make the most of my situation. I scanned the room and saw a guy about my age. He was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, and I may have even spotted a cowboy hat on the ground next to him.
So I moseyed on over, sat down, and introduced myself. We got to talking, and as it turned out, we both had ball cancer. What made his different from mine is that his had gotten into the lymphatic system. He then proceeded to tell me all of the hell that went into getting it out of his lymphatic system…by basically removing his lymphatic system. It was one of the most depressing things I’d ever heard.
And then he proceeded to tell me that this all happened as the bank was beginning foreclosure proceedings on his Diddy’s tractor which was in arrears. I was starting to emotionally shut down at this point. Of course, they couldn’t make payments on the tractor because they had to rebuild the barn which was destroyed by a freak tornado in mid September the year before.
Dear Jesus, get me out of this.
And then his eight-month pregnant wife waddled up with a cup of lemonade from the cafeteria. “Baby, you know we can’t afford that!” She cried and started to waddle out. He tried to apologize, and she called him an expletive.
What…the hell…am I doing…here?!
So I did what any self-respecting human being would do. I cowered in the corner every day, “semi-private curtain” drawn around me, and I prayed for people to not only ignore me, but that I could ignore the rest of treatment and go back to my purposeless driven life after I was done.
Only there was a different plan for me…and one that I neither expected, nor wanted. As much as I loathed going through cancer, I couldn’t let go of the experience. Little things kept happening…funny things…weird things…things I wasn’t proud of…things I will never forget. Everything was so vivid and encompassing, and it was not leaving my head. I started realizing the funny in the tragic. Every shot that cancer took at my gut or my head bent me, but it didn’t break me. And the more I got hit, the stronger I became. I was Rocky to cancer’s Clubber Lang.
“C’mon. Hit me. You’re not so bad.”
Okay, yeah it is so bad, but you get the idea.
And so began my journey to give cancer everything it gave me. And the way I see it, it tried to kill me, so we’re trying to kill it, at least emotionally. And one of the biggest pieces of ammo we’ve ever been given in this fight is the opportunity to speak at the TEDx Sarasota event. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that felt like…well…what am I doing here?
And then I watched some of the amazing speakers. Like Crystal, who has come up with a strategy to blend Gen Y sensibilities with Greatest Generation work ethic. I mean, think about that. That’s a “holy crapper!” Or Jeff, who mixed video game technology with his hatred for cancer taking his dad, and turned it into a 3D immersive way of allowing doctors to literally show patients what is wrong and what treatment options are available…all from an I-pad. Or Andy, who had the crazy notion to mix a bicycle, some pipes and an old pool pump, and turned it into something very well may save the lives of a billion people in Africa alone.
These are all people who saw a need in the world and did not rest on just talking about it. As my friend Wayne Elsey puts it, they “got off the couch.” And when I saw what these and other amazing people decided to do when faced with a bit of havoc, I finally realized, “Oh, this is what I’m doing here.”
But I also take it back to that day talking to Cowboy Chuck. After that conversation about the twister and the John Deere, I could very easily have folded like a short-sleeve suit from K-Mart. But I realized that to take that road would have let cancer win, even if I had beaten it physically. Cancer forced my hand to change my life, which led me to decisions that ultimately saved my life, and not just physically. Because without the emotional, life isn’t really a life, now is it? It’s just an existence.
So while I curse cancer with every fiber of my being, this is the one and only time that I will ever say, “Thank you, cancer. Thank you for motivating me to get off my couch to kick your rectum sideways. ‘preciate you.”