The Most Powerful Lesson My Cancer Taught Me About Life and Work

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I was 34 when I heard my doctor say “stage-four Hodgkin’s lymphoma.” The news hit me like a punch to the face. I was stunned.

Then every two weeks for six months, I had to go the Lineberger Cancer Center to receive chemo. I had a hard time getting out of bed on those days. I loathed the nurses injecting poison into me. Once I was there, and the chemo slid into the port, making my chest cold and my mouth taste like metal, I fought back panic.

At the time, I was working on my first book, Change to Strange, and writing a book was a real bucket-list event for me. I could have devoted time to it, but I wasn’t able to — especially in that emotional state. I felt too much anxiety, fear, dread, and disgust about the venom in my veins to do much useful.

My doctor — and hero — Lee Berkowitz set me straight: Sure, chemo was technically poison but it is also a groundbreaking medicine and I should feel lucky to have it. If I had been diagnosed before 1980, when doctors discovered how to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I would have had to watch the life drain out of me. To put it bluntly, I would have died.

This shift in focus from poison to medicine had a big impact on me. Instead of focusing on the negative, I started thinking about how chemo was going to allow me to see my daughters grow up.

Chemo sessions still weren’t fun, of course, but the purpose of the sessions seemed different. My reactions to the chemo slid from resistance to commitment as my resilience and energy improved. I used the sessions to work on my book, which I was passionate about.

My chemo experience taught me something I’m trying not to forget: The stories that we generate and tell ourselves can have huge effects on our behaviors and the results that we create. If we can craft a better story about the meaning of our circumstances, then we can change the way we relate to those circumstances. The result? Better emotions and better outcomes.

Why It Works

When we believe in the why of our actions, we have greater resilience and stamina when the going gets tough. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” It’s all about the meaning that we assign to our actions.

Psychologists have a term for how we subjectively perceive the world around us, and it’s called construal. What’s important to understand is that there are different levels of construal, ranging from low to high, and whatever level we’re operating on has effects on our attitudes and actions. Low-level construal is when we think very concretely about the physical details of the present situation (chemo is poison and is being injected into my veins). High-level construal is when we don’t focus so much on the concrete details and think of the bigger picture (chemo will help me see my daughters grow up). This higher level is optimal because it makes us think of long-term objectives and gives us a greater sense of purpose.

Cancer changed my life by encouraging me to reexamine the stories I’d been telling myself, and to re-craft them with higher levels of construal.

My advice is don’t wait until you get cancer to improve your story of why you’re doing what you’re doing.

It doesn’t take much to craft a more meaningful story, and once you’ve developed one, you can leverage it to improve all aspects of your life and work — not just the big things. Here are a few ways to get started.

Identify the Stories You’ve Been Telling Yourself

We have stories running around in our brains about all our actions. Sometimes we start to believe in the things that people around us say, especially when extrinsic rewards like job offers and status are on the line.

Here is an exercise that can help you identify your existing stories (because they can be slippery and subconscious) and help you find a story that is truer and more inspirational to you.

The exercise is based on construal level theory by Antonia Freitas and her colleagues, and consists of considering each task or behavior of your job and then asking “Why?” four times. This exercise nudges us to (1) recognize what story we are telling ourselves about the why of our behavior, and (2) develop a higher-level and more meaningful way to interpret our activities.

First, figure out how you’re spending your time. Use your calendar to make this realistic. Take a week or two that is representative of your everyday life and write down your activities. There may be four to five “big” activities that devour 70%–80% of your time, and then lots of smaller activities that are less frequent and less consuming.

For each activity, ask four times why you do it. For example, one of your activities might be holding performance review discussions with employees. So, ask, “Why do I do this?” and then really listen to the answer that you hear running around in your head. You might hear back: “Because I have to…twice a year.” Or you might hear: “I want to let my people know where they stand.”

Adapted from


  • Alive at Work
    Organizational Development Book

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