How Cancer made me more professional

22nd September 2017

January 2017. The consultant in the ICU told my family that my brain was ‘getting ready to check out’. It’s not that I was dying, I was slowly drowning and would not make it through the night without immediate emergency care for my high grade cancer.  This involved drilling a hole in the left side of my chest and under my rib cage to drain over six litres of cancerous fluid from my lungs and the pericardial sac around my heart.

I expected none of this. I’d never even been ill before.  Between January to June 2017 I ended up in hospital on four intense rounds of Chemotherapy. In the Summer I underwent a month of Radiotherapy. I’m now in complete remission, with my next check-up in three months.

These experiences have taught me a lot. As a man, just asking for help is difficult, and accepting it even more so. I have had plenty of time to reflect and think, and as a result I better understand what I want both my professional and business experiences to be. The care I received from Doctors, Nurses, Nursing assistants, Students, and Hospital Porters got me thinking about how I worked and what it meant to be better at what I do. Medical teams could diagnose, advice, administer, get me to the CT scan on time at 3am and still find time to ask me how I was feeling. I was treated with humanity. Nobody said to me that there was any shame in being and feeling vulnerable with Cancer, they just helped me understand it.

At an unconscious level we are all living with defence mechanisms such as fear and anger, whether we are aware of them at the time or not. What was interesting to me was as soon as one of these professionals left the room, I was behind them, they were onto the next patient. It was like we had never met. This approach never felt impersonal to me as I recognised that this is how they get the job done. This is how they cope. I am pragmatic when it comes to health and as a priority and I want a medical team that are clinically excellent, but being reminded, and being allowed to feel, that I was human completed my professional care.

Anyone who knows about or has experienced long term hospital treatment will appreciate the tedium of the routine that is twenty-four hour care. But this experience gave me something that in my adult life I had previously found little time for; just sitting with myself and my thoughts. My experiences made me want to dig into what being a professional meant to me.

I had been frustrated with my working life for over one year before I got ill and, with time on my hands, I started thinking more about what work meant to me. I checked out my Linked In profile. It revealed little except a slightly wordy CV. As my time in hospital passed, the more I checked out Linked In the more I found what I had written was a reasonable explanation of what I did but contained very little about why I was doing it. In fact, many things on Linked In unsettled me. A lot of it the articles and posts felt fake, contrived and without substance.

Experiencing a shift is typical for someone going through a life changing event. For me that shift helped me to get clarity on something; I had been avoiding where I could help and be useful. What had been muddied in my thinking became a lot clearer. A couple of colleagues came and visited me in hospital and told me how mentally sharp I was. I found that fascinating, as from my perspective, I just did not have the energy to talk around subjects, so I just got to the point. If I didn’t know something I just said so. if I felt I could contribute I did, but I always stayed in context. Keeping a conversation within this frame meant I could focus my resources on the here and now.

My colleagues really enjoyed their time with me, even thanking me with excellent St Jude’s ice cream. I was so exhausted in hospital, and afterwards, that I only had the energy to work with what I could consciously focus on. I was not worried what anyone made of my opinion, I was just adding to the conversation without a desire to be anything but myself. I am sure that this came partly from my physical appearance changing so much; I was immobile, frail, my hair was falling out and I had tubes sticking out of me. I found that avoiding second guessing in conversations I simplified how I approached everything. From a greater acceptance of what I could not change emerged a greater ability to detach myself from what I thought unimportant.

I started noting down what mattered to me when I went back to work. What I have written below is a summary of that. It’s not a theory, a model, or somebody else’s work. This is where my Heart, just above the scar, and soul are. This is, for me, a recognition of my survival.

Everything is temporary, so when something ends let it go.

Mourn losses fully. In a professional context this can be a loss of business, a client moving on or a colleague leaving etc. It can also be the loss of a way of thinking, an approach to professional life. By mourning I could let go completely of much of the frustration I was attached to. I am sure all of us have been in the position of change being forced upon us, and we can find ourselves wanting to fight it, blame it and create a fantasy that keeps us stuck where we are. Stuckness can often be described as a form of melancholia, clinging onto experiences and not learning from them. Staying in a fixed position of ‘stuff being bad and it’s somebody’s fault’. When change is happening, and I can feel it, the most helpful approach for me is to take what learning and opportunities I can from it and move on. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek takes this even further, as is typical of revolutionaries, stating that in relationships the real end of love is to accept it was never true love in the first place.

Sell apples to people who want to buy apples.

This is another way of saying that if you want to succeed you must become useful. I was too busy offering what I wanted to do without considering whether anyone found what I offered as useful. I am a poor marketer, but I identify strongly with the above statement and I want to be useful. The fantasy of the vanity project, whether you think it will make you rich, powerful, get better sex or be more loved is a huge distraction from where you are most useful to others.

Being competitive is just as human as the capacity to love.

‘I want to be chosen, hired, and hired again before my competition does’, screams out as unspoken behaviour beneath the surface of our consciousness. There is no shame in wanting to be hired instead of somebody else.

Remain inquisitive and appreciate all experiences.

My favourite movie when I was in hospital was ‘The Big Short’, the opening frame is a quotation from Mark Twain. ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so’.

Stepping from a life that demands certainty into a more uncertain existential position of what may not be is frightening. Being able to say ‘That’s interesting, what is happening here?’ takes courage and is often out of step with much of Western culture. What is interesting is that Twain may not have ever said or wrote this statement.

Always work from the best evidence – if you want to do the best for your clients recognise fads and myths for what they are.

Are we asking the right question to create the best solution? How do we best make sense of what we are doing and is it having any impact? I am not afraid that only a very few businesses have the desire to work in this way. It requires them to look at themselves more critically and honestly. This position for me is very different from my earlier attempts to spent a lot of time on packaging solutions to clients without working out if any of that I was offering could be of any use.

Recognise the humanity in us all – challenge bias whenever I experience it.

I feel that the unfamiliar or what is not ‘me’ as something that could be threatening. It’s very hard to stay on point and not create a ‘them’. Recognising differences, or looking for and celebrating similarities in humanity, is a product of knowing myself better. I am a white male, 51 years old and every day I remind myself of the race and gender bias I carry, that we all carry, with all the unconscious conditioning that I am. It’s human to have bias and it shows humanity to be working on it.

Recognise when my unconscious is in play.

There are many ways to define the concept of the unconscious. I think we can largely accept that most of our behaviour is semi controlled at best.  In hospital I derived great benefit from having less thinking energy to hand. When my energy was lower I experienced greater ‘hang on a minute’ critical moments. I was making better use of limited thinking resources but instinctively eliminating the confused or irrelevant. I did find myself asking more questions to minimise burning up too much energy thinking on behalf of the person I was with. None of us are fully rational all the time. We are all in the mix of revealing and concealing what we really feel without knowing it. The greater the emotion, the greater the unconscious mind is involved and I have learned better to work with these experiences simply because I recognised them more quickly by paying greater attention to my visceral experiences. It’s helpful to be able to recognise what needs to be spoken and its also extremely useful to be aware of what needs to be left unspoken. This is a crucial part of communication, leaving a suitable space for the other party or parties to work through what is unspoken for themselves.

Create time and space to reflect.

In hospital I had no other priorities and I was never sure of the outcome of my treatment, I could be brutal with myself and others, in a good way. I was getting to the nub of things, getting time and space but with little energy. That combination of really not being able to analyse stuff helped me ignore the noise and get to the point quickly.

What this experience continues to reveal to me is the need for greater reflective practice as the unconscious represents the dominant force in all my behaviour. As researchers will state, it’s very difficult to measure unconscious behaviour. However, a continuing awareness of my experiences and growing understanding of psychodynamic theories help to generate real time practical applications for all types of human relationships.

Questions for myself

How do I hang onto this way of focused thinking and communication?

How do I help people who have not had that experience to access it?

How can people acquire this intense honesty without doing damage to themselves?

If there is a mindset that goes with this, then how do I stay in touch with it?

How I will improve my Practice

Being comfortable with saying ‘I feel’. Understanding visceral experiences are important and can be verbalised, bringing the emotion to the surface.

Recognise when your unconscious is at play by paying greater attention to the visceral experiences of heart and gut feeling

Recognise the emotion as quickly as possible, ‘I am feeling emotion, I feel it’. Saying this can dissipate the emotion so you can get back into conscious context as quickly as you can, especially with the risk of mobilisation in group tasks.

Cancer does not define who I am – whatever my condition, I am a human being.

I feel this, I’m ok with that (appreciation), I’m able to let go of it. I’m moving on from that.

Next steps.

Practice reflexivity – real time reflection. The more I do the quicker I can get back on conscious task or work with the emotions in myself and others.


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