How Hope Helped Me Face Cancer—Twice—And Thrive
By Mike Armstrong
I grew up in Detroit, where I learned early on that in order to make it through high school and college, I had to hustle. I kept busy, worked part-time jobs, and steered clear of distractions. I had a goal, and ironclad hope. I went on to work my way from an entry-level position at IBM to a spot as one of the company’s top executives, and later I served in CEO roles at Hughes Electronics, Comcast, and AT&T. I had first-hand knowledge of how to effectively manage tough situations, but the game changed when doctors told me I had late-stage leukemia. It was a new challenge that threatened to take everything away.
Incredibly, I survived leukemia, and I thought that one life-threatening cancer experience was enough for a lifetime, but I was wrong. Fifteen years later, I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. The prognosis was grim, and the harsh treatment regimen triggered another serious disease, Parsonage-Turner syndrome. I was so sick I could hardly breathe. It would have been so easy to give up and let myself fall into cancer’s dark tunnel, but instead I did what came naturally to me and turned to hope. I made a deliberate decision to not let cancer own me.
Today, I’m 83 and thriving. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that no matter how bad it looks, there is almost always a path to hope. With hope, we can find the strength to face adversity; hope can get us through almost anything. It can even help us heal. I write about this in my book Cancer With Hope: Facing Illness, Embracing Life, and Finding Purpose.
I’m on a mission to help cancer patients everywhere find and sustain hope. While it’s true each patient is different, there are universal moments we all face:
What do you know? Stick with that
The cancer journey is fraught with doubt and uncertainty. It’s understandable to get swept up in despair and start asking hypothetical questions. Don’t do it. The “what ifs” will drive you nuts. The only way to manage the uncertainty is, as hard as it sounds, to remain positive and be guided by hope as you deal with what is known. Trust your doctor’s experience and recommendations, research the latest data on your type of disease. Every day we know more about cancer, so don’t waste your time and energy focusing on what is unknown.
Get your game plan together
Now is the time to work with your help team to develop an action and treatment plan. This is far more constructive and empowering than worrying about things outside of your control. Once the plan is in place, concentrate on executing it one step at a time without getting lost in the frightening and often confusing bigger picture of cancer.
Develop a support system
No one should face cancer alone. You need a resource toolkit and a circle of support. In my book I provide detailed vetted lists of: National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers (the gold-standard of cancer care), questions to ask your doctor and care team, and trusted cancer websites. All are there to help ease your journey and improve your quality of life, which will strengthen your hope. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.
Look at it as an opportunity
There’s no getting around it. Cancer dramatically shakes up your perspective on life and what you want to do with it. It’s the silver lining effect after the dark storm that makes one realize how precious it all is. There’s a strong push to use time wisely and with purpose. One patient featured in my book devoted her life to helping other cancer patients locate and enroll in clinical trials, while another launched a nonprofit to assist women with breast cancer. My own battles left my wife Anne and I with the desire to support projects that advance medicine, help the disadvantaged, and make the world a better place. It’s important to us to give back because we know how much of a difference these programs make.
In spite of the many challenges cancer brought into my life, it ended up teaching me just how much more I can do, and what I’m capable of. At the end of the day, it’s all about hope.
Mike Armstrong is the former Chairman and CEO of Comcast, AT&T and Hughes Electronics. He began his career at IBM, where he spent more than three decades rising through the ranks to become chairman of the IBM World Trade Corporation. Having battled leukemia and prostate cancer as well as serious illness throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he became an active supporter of Johns Hopkins Medical School and its hospitals after retiring from the corporate world in 2002. In 2005, he was named chairman of the Board of Trustees of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Now fully retired, Armstrong is on a mission to share his story as a two-time cancer survivor to help others on the cancer journey find hope. He and his wife Anne are donating most of their net worth to projects that advance medicine, help the disadvantaged, and make this world a better place.