Everyone knows that a cancer diagnosis can be devastating for the person on the receiving end. It is easy to fall into a dark place emotionally and delay important treatment decisions. All this, at a time, when poor choices can prove fatal.
I've noticed that many of the entrepreneurs and CEOs I have treated have been especially adept at taking charge of their diagnosis.
In more than 12 years as a cancer surgeon, I have noticed that what defines these patients is their ability to compartmentalize and marshal resources forward.
They quickly clear their heads, get the facts and make decisions.
I know the average person doesn't necessarily have all the resources of a CEO.
But, that doesn't mean he or she can't learn important lessons from that entrepreneur's skillset about taking control of big-time decisions, especially around their health.
The truth is that technology and higher costs are going to push everyone to be the captain of their own medical ship and with that responsibility will come increasing choices and power.
Given this consumerization of healthcare, and the good outcomes I see from patients with an entrepreneur's mindset, I've spent time speaking with my business leader patients to try to understand what's going on under the hood. It occurs to me that their decision-making machinery could provide a schematic for anyone faced with a cancer diagnosis.
What I've found in these discussions are five common attributes of the entrepreneurs and executives that I've treated that can help almost anyone get up off the mat for the fight of their life:
1. Detach your emotions from your decision-making.
CEOs take an emotionally detached approach to decision-making.
They don't detach their gut -- because instincts have always worked for them. Cancer patients of any background can do the same. Take a "third person" approach to thinking about the problem.
Now that's easier said than done for anyone whose life is suddenly shaken by a cancer diagnosis. But, persisting in "this can't be happening to me" thinking, or bargaining with one's body or one's God, won't help overcome metastatic kidney cancer.
The most successful patients quickly accept the diagnosis and focus on the actionable steps for treatment. They step outside themselves and treat their bodies like an enterprise for which they are responsible. They make decisions as dispassionately and efficiently as possible. They don't hesitate to pull the trigger.
2. Do your homework before you consult the experts.
The entrepreneurs I have treated conducted a great deal of their own research after diagnosis. They know that with complex problems, even top experts don't know everything.
There's rarely one "right" answer, and ultimately the CEO is responsible for whatever happens.
All cancer patients should do the same.
Once they have heard the bad news, it is critical to quickly develop an understanding of the issues and choices before their meeting with their surgeon/oncologist. How? They reach out to anyone they know who've had the same cancer or similar treatment.
They dive into the American Cancer Society's website and read about the most recent research on their type of cancer.
They recognize that Google is not a qualified medical professional, but that the web is still an invaluable tool for understanding the road ahead.
This informed CEO then approaches her doctor visit with significant information in hand, and asks high-level questions. The grimmer the prognosis, the more intense the background research needs to be.
3. Ask difficult, even uncomfortable questions.
The CEOs that have come to me are unafraid to ask tough questions and challenge the answers they get to make sure the advice they're receiving is sound. Smart cancer patients need to do the same.
Understanding why a given treatment is right for you requires more than just a reliance on a standard treatment protocol.
What kind of statistical basis supports a chemotherapy regimen? How many surgeries or procedures of the kind recommended for you has the physician performed -- and with what kind of success rates? Is there a better option?
Anywhere? Don't be afraid to ask tough questions, especially when your life is on the line.
4. Always be in risk-assessment mode.
CEOs inherently know hard problems rarely have easy answers. Even the best alternatives for bad situations often have many unattractive aspects.
The goal must be to take care of the disease once and for all. Unfortunately, far too many cancer patients make treatment decisions using a calculus that overemphasizes minimizing side effects versus aggressively maximizing the likelihood of curing their disease.
That decision can literally kill you.
If a cure for a particular cancer doesn't currently exist, the goal must be to find the best treatment to buy time until one emerges. The rapid pace of drug development promises a treatment for various cancers over the next decade. CEOs deeply believe as long as there is hope there is a chance.
That kind of risk assessment allows any patient to hold on in the face of the most-dire prediction.
5. Make a timely decision and implement it.
Finally, the CEOs I've seen didn't dither about making a decision about treatment.
They might seek out a second opinion, but when they did, they got it fast and didn't let the difficulties ahead delay taking action. With cancer, as with business problems, things don't get better with time or inaction.
Once facts and expert opinions were gathered dispassionately, hard questions were asked and backbones stiffened for the tough days ahead, the decisions were made.
Quickly. It's time to execute the plan.
All of this is incredibly difficult.
And it's not to say that these business leaders are robots -- they do need to find the right time and place to process the tough news. But, the point is that they take charge.
Highly skilled oncologists or surgeons are big boys and girls -- so patients needn't worry about hurting their doctor's feelings by getting a second opinion, asking lots of questions or demonstrating confidence and control about their treatment options.
We continue to make dramatic strides in the overall war on cancer with rapid advances in new therapeutics and genetic science. But, patient outcomes are still greatly influenced by patient decisions and all patients can maximize their chances of success by channeling their inner entrepreneur.