On Cancer and Collaboration

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purple flower growing out of a crack in concrete

Thursday, January 9, 2014, I received the diagnosis: cancer.  On Wednesday, June 25, after 23 rounds of radiation, 5 rounds of chemotherapy, and major surgery, the medical oncologist looked me in the eye and said, “You’re cured.”  Here were words I never really expected to hear, and certainly not so soon.  But the evidence is in and there is no evidence of any more cancer within me.

Throughout this time, partially as personal therapy and partially to keep people informed, I wrote, using an online blogging site called CaringBridge. The writing process kept me attuned closely not only to what was happening within me, but to what I could learn from this journey. I have learned a number of valuable lessons, many of which relate to the work we do through Family Connection, the work of collaboration. Here are some observations I have related to cancer treatment and collaboration.

Relationships Matter

Perhaps nothing draws us closer to others than adversity. Facing tough times becomes easier when those who matter to you are right there alongside of you. My family, my church family, my work family, and a circle of friends larger than I could have imagined, all rallied around me. And made a difference.

Relationships certainly matter in collaboration. In fact, that is always among the first things I share with a new coordinator. This work is about relationships. This work could not survive without solid relationships. When adversity comes to a community in the form of disturbing social concerns and that community rallies together to address them, amazing things can happen.

Celebration Matters

On March 13 I received my last radiation treatment.  When I left the treatment rooms and went out into the reception area, a crowd was waiting to greet me—fellow patients, members of my treatment team, and my wife, Diane. They were clapping and cheering and shaking pom-poms. Then Diane and I were invited to ring a bell that hangs there on the wall—a symbol of celebration and joy. Ringing the bell was a moment I won’t forget, and a moment that gave me strength for what still lie ahead for me.

Collaboratives need celebration. Too often we can get caught in looking at the issues, the negatives. It can be depressing. Celebration lifts us up, reminds us that there is good being accomplished, and encourages us for the tasks that still lie ahead.

The Personal Touch Matters

During the past six months I have received hundreds of communications—emails, phone calls, cards and letters, and comments on my CaringBridge site. While they all were helpful and I certainly appreciated them, I found the ones I appreciated the most were the cards that came in the mail. How old fashioned is that? There is something a little more personal there—the senders taking the time to pick out the right card that expressed what they wanted to say, addressing the card, and placing it in the mail. I confess, I have a bowl full of cards sitting on a shelf and I occasionally look through them. But just seeing the overflowing bowl reminds me of folks who care. There’s something about the personal touch.

The personal touch strengthens collaborative relationships. There needs to be more than an exchange of emails and phone calls for genuine collaboration to be going on.  There needs to be some face time, where words of appreciation can be shared, and where ideas can be bounced around the room.  There’s something about the personal touch.

Listening Matters

I am grateful for a nurse named Tammy. Several weeks after surgery I was on a feeding pump, unable to take anything by mouth because of a small leak where my esophagus and stomach were joined together after some of both were removed in surgery. For seven weeks I went without eating a thing. It was getting me down more mentally and emotionally than it was physically, because my nutrition needs were being met. I couldn’t get the surgeon or his P.A. to understand how I was feeling, or the impact this was having on me. Then I spoke with Tammy, and she listened. She didn’t just hear my words; she listened. And in listening, she understood, and took action. Within 10 minutes she had gotten me permission to begin a liquid diet, to at last put something in my mouth. And four days later, they took me off the feeding tube. A listening ear improved my health and well-being.

We speak often in Family Connection about having the family voice at the table. The challenge is to really listen, to not just hear the words, but to go deeper, understanding the best we can all of the impact these words are trying to convey. Tammy heard more than my words. She read my face, she heard the tremor in my voice, and she interpreted my body language. All those things are there in collaboration as well.  Listening is an art that we would do well to cultivate.

Commitment Matters

Early on in my experience I wrote a CaringBridge journal entry I titled, “Advanced Directives.” In it I discussed five commitments I had made that I thought would advance my healing—like not whining, doing what the doctors said, not letting cancer take over my whole being, who I am.  There were times after that, usually when things weren’t going so well, that remembering those commitments kept me going—put me back on track. That I had put them out there, in print, put some pressure on myself to keep the commitments, and that was a good thing.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where commitment is optional, where people think a signature on a piece of paper isn’t binding. But commitments, especially when made public, make a difference. I recall one Collaborative coordinator who wasn’t getting the cooperation from a new school superintendent that she would have liked (and the Collaborative needed).  She took the new superintendent a copy of an memo of understanding that his predecessor signed, and he readily agreed that he should honor that commitment. Had there been nothing in writing, that relationship might have broken down entirely.

It is often said that even in the worst of times there is to be found some good. I hope these lessons I’ve found in some very difficult times will provoke your thinking and bring about some good in your work.