On July 1, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon announced that he would soon be undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. He wrote “the prognosis from my doctors is excellent, the cancer was caught quickly, and my condition is curable.” A reader wrote me and asked if, given my own experiences, I would be willing to share some thoughts on this news.
I think I know how you feel, Mr. Dimon.
At 12:40 PM on Tuesday, February 5, 2013, my doctor called me on my cell phone and told me I have cancer. I remember sitting there in my new shiny blue BMW convertible, listening to him talk about “survival rates”, “surgery” and “radiation treatments”.
Later that day I cried for a couple of hours. I felt, for the first time, my own mortality — on a visceral level. I called my family, drank a bottle of chardonnay, and then I did what I often do in times of crisis – I started writing in my diary. And I came up with a lot of questions which I asked myself, that night, about the purpose of my work, and my life, here in Silicon Valley.
There is never a good time to get a cancer diagnosis, but the timing of this seemed especially bad. You see, most people would say that I’d had a very fortunate career. I got an MBA from Stanford, joined Yahoo as employee # 258 in 1997, and became a “Dot Com Millionaire”. Later, I worked at various other comparison shopping and internet advertising companies, which turned out to be financially rewarding, as well.
Sometimes I loved the work, and sometimes I didn’t. In January, 2013, I started my own leadership consulting business, where I teach companies how to build high performance teams. I was finally playing to my greatest strengths, and I was really excited to be entering into a new, sustainable phase in my career. This was the sort of work I was excited to be doing for decades into the future.
And then came the cancer diagnosis. In my case, prostate cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 30,000 men die of prostate cancer annually, making it the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. But on a more positive note, it’s one of the slowest growing cancers that a man can have. As for me, we detected it very early. So early, in fact, that my doctors and I decided that the best thing to do now is “active surveillance”, which means no surgery or radiation yet, because of their negative side effects. (If you have prostate cancer, you may choose a very different plan of action, but this seems to be the best for me for now.)
My first annual biopsy was a few months ago, and the doctor found no cancer at all. He said that the cancer cells are probably still there somewhere, but at least they have not expanded since last year.
So why am I worried about death, when I have one of the least aggressive, most easily treatable forms of cancer possible? Why all the drama?
Well, a couple of weeks after my initial diagnosis, I spoke to a friend, who was an early executive at Yahoo. She has lung cancer, which has spread to the walls of her chest. She’d been going through a lot of chemotherapy and at one time lost all of her hair. We got together for lunch in Los Gatos. I said “Diane, I don’t even feel like I am in the same league as you are, since your situation is so much more serious than mine. It’s like I barely have Cancer for Beginners, and you have the Real Deal.”
She told me “Jim, it’s not about whether you have 2 months to live, or 20 years. When you get a cancer diagnosis, it changes your life forever.” I think she’s right.
At the same time, she talked about how deeply and beautifully she savors life these days. She told me about how wonderful it is, when she goes to her son’s lacrosse games, and she sees the blue of the sky, the green of the leaves, and hears the laughter of the boys running. These simple pleasures almost bring her to tears.
Diane said “I wish all of us could live as if we had a cancer diagnosis.” Of course, she did not wish on anybody the pain, nausea, fear, heartbreak, or loss which cancer can cause. But she wished that all of us could experience her intense appreciation of life in the here and now.
As a result of my own cancer diagnosis, I’ve changed my life in these ways:
1). I eat a lot healthier, and sleep more.
2). I do more running, swimming, yoga and meditation to reduce my stress.
3). I invest more time in family, friends, and community — even if this means I work less and earn less money.
4). I cry more (such as when I was writing this blog today). But I laugh a lot more, too!
5). I moved to a city where I’d always wanted to live: San Francisco.
6). I actively think about what I’m grateful for, every day.
7). I’ve tried to make peace with my past.
8). I started conducting a Happiness Workshop entitled “Live Before You Die! Find Pleasure, Purpose, and Peace.” It’s based on those questions I wrote up, after drinking that bottle of chardonnay, hours after I got my own cancer diagnosis. (Learn more here.)
As I wrote in my blog post “The Farmer’s Luck in Silicon Valley”, our lives are filled with events which we label as “good” or “bad”. But what we find is that the “bad” things often lead directly to the “good” things. Mr. Dimon, I’m sure you did not wake up one morning and wish for a cancer diagnosis that day. But I’m hopeful that this health challenge will help you learn, grow, heal, and be happy in ways you never could have imagined. You still have time to live the life you’ve always wanted — if you have not already done so. That’s been the case for me since that phone call I received from my urologist 17 months ago. I’m living with a cancer diagnosis — and life is good!
I wish all the best to you, Mr. Dimon — and to everyone else who’s been touched by cancer.
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Copyright 2014, Jim McCarthy. All Rights Reserved.