041: Lee Tomlinson: Throat Cancer Survivor Who Conquered His Fear And Learned The Lesson Of Kindness
Most men think they are the toughest person in the world, until a life threatening sickness takes over their life and body. After getting kicked out of his own Hollywood Studio and winning the legal battle that lasted for four years, Lee Tomlinson was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer. He was never a quitter, but the trials of battling cancer had him contemplating taking his own life to ease the burden of his suffering family. But perseverance paid off. Now Lee is able to share his story of obstacles and celebrations and how he was able to conquer his fear and jump out of a plane at 13,000 ft.
We talked to Lee Tomlinson. Lee is a guy who originally started out as a professional tennis player and became a studio executive in Hollywood. Everything was rolling, the houses, the cars, the money. Then he found out that his partners were embezzling money. He ultimately took those guys to court. They locked him out of the studio and cut him off his salary. A tough time for him, lots of stress, lots of anxiety. Through this whole thing, he ends up getting throat cancer. He can’t swallow, he can’t eat. He has to have a feeding tube in his stomach. At the very end of all things, there was so much within his marriage, that blows up. If that’s not enough, he had a port on his body, meaning there is a place where they had inserted a tube that got infected. He almost died from that.
Depression sunk in but ultimately, there was a decision moment in his life where he shifted his mindset. He now has dedicated his life towards going out and educating the medical community about this acronym he came up with called C.A.R.E., which is amazing. It’s all about compassion and respect towards patients that are out there. We’ve all been a patient at some level, at some time in our life. He certainly has had his share. The people he has hang out with, what he had to go through, the depths that he ultimately brought and mount up. All this stuff, it’s about overcoming and achieving. He did that.
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Lee Tomlinson: Throat Cancer Survivor Who Conquered His Fear And Learned The Lesson Of Kindness
I’m in the presence of a great guy, Lee Tomlinson. Lee, how are you doing?
Couldn’t be better.
I’m really fired up for a bunch of reasons. Number one, I always love it when people come to my place and we connect like this. The reason why I bring that up is because a lot of what we’re going to talk about is connection and things that you’ve experienced over your time. You are a survivor of stage three throat cancer, correct?
Between three and four, yeah.
Four means you’re history, right?
No, not necessarily. There are people alive today with every stage of cancer on the face of the planet. However, when you get to four, your chances of recovery are significantly diminished. I was diagnosed with stage three plus because it had spread to some lymph nodes, but it wasn’t all through my body, which would have made it four, so we’re in between. We’re splitting hairs at this point of serious advanced cancer.
The bottom line is you’re healthier, alive, you’re well. You’re doing great things out there, right?
I knock on wood three, four months ago. I went in for my annual checkup, which takes hours. I take all these tests and blood and scans. I get to Dr. Gabayan and he’s looking at my stuff and he goes, “What a coincidence. Do you realize that today is exactly five years to the day since your last treatment? Do you understand what that means?” I said, “No.” He goes, “We don’t use this word, but after five years, no evidence of disease, you’re technically cured.” I didn’t know that was possible. I didn’t ever expect to hear that word. I was dumbstruck. I was thrilled, but I couldn’t process it. I go home. I live with a roommate and she’s ecstatic. She works at UCLA Health and she says, “We got to celebrate.” I said, “No kidding. I just got a clean bill of health. Let’s go to the best restaurant in LA, wine, champagne, whatever you want to.”She goes, “No, we got to celebrate.” “What’d you have mind?” She pauses and she goes, “Let’s go sky diving.” I looked at her like, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I just cheated cancer and now I’m going to risk my life jumping out of a plane at 13,500 feet.” She goes, “You’ll have beaten the two things you’re most scared of, falling out of an airplane and cancer.” The next day we did it. We went out to Paris Valley.
I’ve done it out there and I got to tell you, I was terrified. The door is open, you’re looking out and I thought that the plane was going to crash. I was circling going up. Then you get up there and it’s your turn and you have to approach the window and the one thing I knew, if I look down I would not go. I just looked above the wing and on the, “One, two, three,” I just focused on that and then you’re in this free fall for 30 seconds or something. It seems like forever.
It does seem like forever. I have a sense that it was like you’d be gliding, swooping. You are dead weight and terminal velocity. Those are two things you don’t ever want in a sentence about something you’re doing for entertainment. When we’re going up, I’m thinking, “The plane levels off.”I turned to the guy behind me who was attached to me and I said, “This is what 13,500 feet looks like.” He cracks up and he points to the altimeter that we have on our wrists. We’re at 3,500 feet. We weren’t even close to 13,500 and that’s when I got scared. I was terrified at 3,500 feet. When we got to 13,500, you couldn’t see cars. You couldn’t see any houses. You could just see 100 miles. I knew I was in trouble.
Did you grow up in Oregon?
I lived in Oregon for awhile. I was born in Wisconsin. I’m a Milwaukee guy. My grandparents were German immigrants. My dad was from California, met my mother who was from Wisconsin at the Hollywood canteen during World War II. My mother was a hostess. My dad was in the Air Force. You’re not supposed to date when you’re a hostess. Somehow that night they started a relationship and were married for 58 years.
The reason why I asked you that is because you did attend college in Oregon, right?
I went to Whitworth College in Spokane. I lived in Eugene, Oregon just out of college before I started to play the Pro Tennis Tour. I managed and taught tennis at the Eugene Swim & Tennis Club and my life was never the same. That’s where I decided to give a shot to the tour and gave up that job and played five years traveling around the world in my shorts for work. I came out much better probably than most people.
How did you make the leap then from tennis to getting involved in the movie industry down in Los Angeles?
It is the most circuitous way you could imagine. I went to school, I studied English and History because I couldn’t figure out what the heck I was going to do. Then out of college, I took a job as you’re supposed to do. It was tennis. It wasn’t a teaching position. My parents were both in education. I thought I was going to be that. I started playing tennis. Then once I quit the tour, I got involved with a business that was starting to do business in China when it was first opened to the Western world and one thing led to another. I started my own business and ran that for a number of years. We’re import-export companies in the Philippines, China and Hong Kong.
I spent so much time in the far East, and I was like, “I have to get back to the United States. If I want to fall in love and if I want to have a relationship, if I want to consider family, I’ve got to be in a place where I can relate to people more easily and people don’t even speak my language.”I had the good fortune to have the time to sit down and really look at, “What do I love doing? What is it that just gives me pure joy?” There were two things, sports and entertainment. I had grown up with a very famous godfather. I grew up in a community in Encino in the Valley, surrounded by celebrities and their kids. All my friends, my best friends were the sons or daughters of gigantic celebrities.
Who’s the most famous one?
John Wayne, Dick Van Dyke, Walt Disney, they all lived within a quarter of a mile to my house. We weren’t even remotely at that stature. We were upper middle-middle class education. These are all celebrities. Those are the two things. First thing I did was get into sports marketing and began doing that and then got a call from the US Olympic Committee. We have a thing called the US Olympic Festival, which was then the second largest Olympic sports event for the US Olympic. Olympics being number one, and it was a preparatory event.
It’s like the Olympics but only with American athletes, and we had one here in LA. I was the head of sales and marketing for that. It’s my job to find the money through sponsors to fund it, which is fabulous. I got a little burned out on that and got a call from the American Film Institute saying, “We hear you’re really good at taking good ideas and turning them into businesses, and raising money.”That’s true. They said, “We’ve got a problem. The President of the United States has just taken away a lot of the public funding from arts organizations because they’re too left wing.”
Who was that at the time?
President Bush. They said, “We’ve got a minimum of $2.5 million shortfall from morning until night and we’re desperate. We can only ask for contributions to a certain level and we’ve been doing that for 35 years, but overnight, to lose 30% of our budget, that’s a problem. We got to figure out some ways to make some money and figure it out.”They had no idea. They had nothing. I came up with an idea. I heard that the first commercial sale of a ticket to a movie happened in 1898 at a place called Bial’s Dance Hall in Midtown, Manhattan, New York. I thought, “It’s almost 1998. It’s a hundred years later. This is like the 100 Anniversary of the start of commercial movies. Why don’t we make that into an event?” I created something called the Centennial Celebration of American Movies. We put together 1,500 of the biggest shots in Hollywood on every level involved with entertainment, actors, directors, producers, heads of studios.
We put together a list of nominees and then we had them vote on the hundred greatest movies of the century. Then what we did to publicize that was we turned it into a three-hour primetime CBS special. That interspersed with famous celebrities talking about their favorite movies as they went down. The thing that was amazing about it was normally when you do a show like that, you sell it to a network and they pay you a licensing fee. Nobody wanted to do the show. I persuaded AFI to take the bet. It was $3 million to produce the shows, another $3 million to buy the time, $1 million an hour and then some overheads. It was like $6.5 million we were in for and we financed the show ourselves. If we didn’t raise $6.5 million minimum to break even, AFI was in big trouble. The good news is that we raised $13 million, they made a bundle and the show won all three hours on a Tuesday night for CBS, which hadn’t happened in ten years.
Not only do I have credibility, CBS now wants to buy the show. I persuaded AFI, “We made enough. Let’s roll the dice again with that big of an audience. We can prove it’s going to be a lot easier to sell a second show.”It was called 100Years… 100Movies: The Centennial Celebration of America Movies. The second year was A 100 Years…100 Stars. We picked the 50 greatest men and the 50 greatest women actors in Hollywood and then talked about them. We did it for ten years and we’ve netted AFI a good eight figures in net profit and set them up for a very successful rest of their rest of their life. That’s how I got into entertainment. Once I left AFI, we bought the Culver Studios where they made Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, E.T. and we built the Albuquerque Studios as well.
Is it more movies than TV, your production?
I was exclusively television. I ended up marrying a woman who was a top costume designer who did gigantic features. Producing-wise, I was only television. When we bought the Culver studios, we did everything.
You got the finances, you’ve got the car, the house, the wife, the whole thing. Then somehow or another, some business partners that you had partnered with embezzled money or puts you in a very bad position.
Bad position is one way to say it. Disastrous is another. I discovered their fraud and their embezzlement and confronted them. I was so flabbergasted. I didn’t think about what to do. I wish I had, and I confronted them one night about it. The next morning, I came to the studio and I was locked out. I wasn’t allowed on the lot. Every security person, which I knew personally said, “Lee, it’s not right. I understand that, but if we let you in, we’re fired.
[Tweet “It’s not enough just to give me medicine. As a human being, I need that hug and a kiss figuratively or literally, everybody does. “]
What was your position with the company?
I was a partner and I was Senior Vice President of sales and marketing. All of a sudden, I’m out of work. They stopped paying me. They took all my benefits, all my insurance, and I had to sue them. They had all the money from the studio to pay legal fees. They knew that I didn’t have that kind of resources. They dragged it out. They deposed me for a week for twelve hours a day at $500 an hour. That was just the start. We went through that for two years and I accrued an enormous amount of debt. A week before the trial knowing they weren’t going to win, they settled. I ended up with their ownership stake in Culver Studios and everything was good. Our financial partner was Lehman Brothers. After I win, I informed them of the fraud and they were suing these guys as well.
They said, “That’s great that you got that settlement from them, but we want that for our settlement as well. You need to sell it to us.”They offered me about $0.10 on the dollar for the actual market value. I said, “I can’t even pay my legal fees if I sell it to you for that. I spent two years in hell. Look at my debt from legal fees.”They said, “If you don’t do it, we’re going to sue you.”“On what basis?”“You are part of the partnership that screwed us around.” “I’m the one who told you about this. I had nothing to do with it.” They said, “We’re going to sue you,” and they did. I spend two more years being sued by somebody who had the bottomless coffers.
About a month before we were to go to trial, I said, “What evidence do you have that I did wrong?” They said, “Here’s three expenses that you put in that were inappropriate that we reimburse you for it.” I saved everything, so I produced the three canceled checks paying them for those three. They had no case. A month before we go to trial, at which point everything disappears and I’m in great shape, they go bankrupt. It’s thrown into receivership. In the world of big bankruptcies, your list of creditors. I was so far down the list. I lost everything and had about a half a million dollars in debt.
What did that do to your personal relationship with your wife? That’s a lot of stress.
If that were the only thing, we probably could’ve gotten through. Sometimes when I’m scared and desperate and my world is falling apart, I may not be the most wonderful guy on the face of the planet. I get tight and I get demanding and I get impatient and I put her through a lot of that stuff. As we’re going through all of that and struggling with the finances, “Should we sell the house?”I go to the ENT, my doctor one day. I’m a golf addict and because of my adventuresome lifestyle, I’ve been hospitalized for 82 million things.
I’ve either had it, broken it, and smashed it. I don’t go willingly, but I went to my ENT because it was really important because I qualified for the California State Senior Amateur Golf Championships up at Pebble Beach. For an amateur golfer, that’s huge. I had stars in my eyes. I can always say, “I’m a qualified competitor in California where they have so many great golfers.”It was a big ego thing and it was fun. I go to my ENT because I had terrible allergies, which I still do. My eyes were watery and sinus issues and ear issues. I knew I wouldn’t be able to play very well up in Pebble without some sort of relief from that stuff.
I’m going for allergy testing, which is not a big deal. I don’t know if you’ve ever had those allergy tests where they poke you with a hundred different things to see how much it swells. It’s one of the most annoying things. They do all this for a couple of hours and she comes in, Dr. Michelle Putnam, an extraordinary woman, and she’s cracking up. “Dr.Putnam, what the heck is so funny?” She goes, “We figured out what you’re allergic to.” What would be the worst thing as a golfer you could imagine being allergic to? That would be grass. On a scale of one to ten, I’m an eleven, which she thought was hilariously funny. This is a disaster to me. My wife thought it was divine retribution for all those days that I’d spent on the golf course instead of being with her. She thought God has finally punished me. It’s fair enough as far as she was concerned. She’s just going to do one more test.
It’s like the studios maybe a quarter of a mile away, I’m still involved with the last of the legal stuff. I said, “I got to go.” She goes, “No, one more test. I want to do an endoscopy.”A stick was hosed up your nose and it’s got a camera on it and it looks around. She starts doing that and within maybe fifteen seconds she turns to me. Her face, I remember it so clearly. It’s clear that she doesn’t want to say what she’s going to say. Her face is distressed. ” I’ll tell you this. I think you have cancer. I think you have throat cancer and it’s pretty far advanced. It’s in your lymph nodes as well. I can see it.”
Did you have any symptoms at this time?
All I have was the allergy stuff. I have nothing else. I didn’t have anything. I don’t drink. I’ve never smoked tobacco. I’m a marathon runner and a hiker. I eat everything. This can’t be. I can’t possibly have throat cancer, but I did. It’s 2012. She says, “You need to get your wife in here right now. I’m going to cancel my next two hours of appointments. I’m going to spend two hours or as long as it takes for you and your wife to ask every question you can remotely imagine about this. What’s going to entail? What might happen, what might not? Anything you want to know, I’m going to answer for you,” and she did. I don’t remember any of it. My wife who was working across street at Sony was taking copious notes. My brain was done.
This is probably like an out-of-body experience for you, right?
It was other worldly. It’s hard particularly when you take care of symptoms. I would guess that you get diagnoses that you were told if you keep doing this lifestyle thing, you’re going to maybe have a chance of something. I did the exact opposite my whole life. There’s no way I got cancer. It was inconceivable to me. This conversation made no sense. I got to be dreaming this, but I wasn’t. We said, “Who would you recommend to treat me?” She gave me some names and I said, “If you were me, which one would you do?” She said, “I would choose Beverly Hills Cancer Center, the Gabayan brothers.”
She gets on the phone and calls him, gets me an appointment in two hours. I go over there. They do some more tests to confirm, the diagnosis was 100% correct. They said, “You need to start treatment immediately.” I said, “But I have the State Championships coming up. Is it okay if I take a week because it’s next week?”I take a week and go up and play in the State Championships. These two renowned cancer doctors look at each other with a look on their face, which is, “This is clearly the stupidest human being, which part of advanced cancer do you not understand? You need to start right now.” That was the last time I played golf for almost four years. I didn’t pick up a club. It broke my heart on two levels. One, I was dying. The second is I didn’t get to play in the State Championships and I was sick from the treatment. The last thing I was thinking about was playing golf.
You’re putting poison into your body to counteract this and kill all the cells.
Not only poison, but I had 35 radiation treatments on my throat. Think about radiation, think about what Hiroshima Nagasaki only focused down to a small beam that every single day for 35 days they explode in the back of your throat and your tongue to the most tender tissue in your body.
How do you eat?
Is this IV fed?
It was meant to be. I’m an idiot and I’m a guy. I’m learning and I’m getting better, but they said, “You’re not going to be able to swallow. You’re not going to be able to eat hard food or any kind of food. You’re not going to be able to do it. You will not be able to swallow,” which didn’t make sense. How can you not swallow? You need to have a feeding tube put in your stomach and I don’t know why, but the thought of that just really bugged me. It seemed like it’s a wuss does that. I said, “Have you ever treated anybody who hasn’t had a feeding tube put in?” They said, ” Two guys. One was a race car driver and the other was a SWAT team member. Those were the two.” I was, “If those guys can do it, I can do it.”The biggest mistake of my life. It almost killed me.
Just because it’s so painful?
Not being able to eat for two months, I lost 60 pounds and you have to keep your strength up to fight it because your whole body is under attack and so you need all the strength you can muster and part of that comes from nutrition, but I couldn’t. They are right. I couldn’t swallow saliva. I’m just like swallowing broken glass.
How long did the treatment go on for?
The treatment was 35 days, so seven weeks. Five a week, I got the weekends off. The pain from it, maybe two years. I had to take classes in swallowing.
You’re going through this through your seven-week period of time and you’re still married?
I am. She was my rock.
After the seven or eight weeks of taking this painful treatment, your throat is on fire, you now are coming out of it. At that point in the world of cancer treatments, do they pronounce you you’re cured or is it you’re just going to the next level?
There’s not even the remote talk of cure at that point. After a year of treatment, nothing. I was living in ten-minute increments. I was self-administering fentanyl patches and it was a question of, “Do I live ten minutes? Do I give up? Do I live ten more minutes? Do I give up?” It was 50-50. I thought I was tough. I’ve had thumbs pulled off. I’ve had fifteen broken bones. I’ve had bad two near-fatal motorcycle accidents. Cancer kicked my butt, knocked me to my knees, made me cry, made me weep, made me give up wanting to live, to quit. I’m not a quitter. It’s not me.
It’s got to the point where it’s like, “I don’t know if I’m even going to make it and the pain is just unrelenting every minute of every day. It’s just a question of how much? Will it ever get better?” I thought, “Once I’m through with radiation, all of a sudden, things are going to start feeling great.”I didn’t feel great for years. The worst part was that right at the very end of my treatment, I woke up in a large LA hospital in the emergency room. I passed out in my doctor’s office finding out I getting a feeding tube at a late date and the port that I’d had for the infusion, which is surgically inserted. I had a serious septic infection that was infinitely more dangerous than the cancer at that moment in terms of life and death.
I’m dying of cancer, miserable from the treatments, and excruciating pain. I have a life threatening septic infection and my life is ruined. I’m in immense debt. My wife is getting tired of working through all this crap with me because when I’m in terrible pain, I’m not the most fun to be around, sadly. When I get to this hospital, I’m at the end of my rope. I was like, “God, seriously? You took the studio, you put me in debt, you gave me cancer, now you’re giving me an infection. Do you want me dead?” I just needed some kindness. The people at this hospital where the most unkind, insensitive, rude, uncaring, and mean.
If I were in that situation and you’re so fragile, that you’re super sensitive to anything. A lot of things I’m sure when you’re in full mindful, full hear, full spirit, you’re able to say, “They’re just having a bad day and I just keep moving along.” Now, you’re in this place where you don’t know if you’re going to keep walking down the street. People that don’t respond to you in the right ways of just compassion and caring about your awful situation, your predicament, you’re like, “Whoa.” I can totally see how that would happen.
As I look back on it, I realized that for that year, my life was in the hands of those people, not just at that hospital, but at the oncology center, at my ENT. All of those people were literally doing things to try to save my life. When I trust someone enough to do things to me that I don’t even understand in the hopes that it will save my life, it makes them pretty important in my life. It makes them almost god-like. When God thinks you’re not worthy of simple human kindness, I believe him. The problem is not with God, the problem is with me. Something’s wrong with me. I’m not good enough. I’m not important enough. I’m not meaningful enough. I’m just another aging white male with advanced cancer and a life-threatening infection. I wasn’t even a human being and it broke my heart.
They’re telling me to take these medicines, these shots, these radiations, go here, go there. You’re doing everything and meanwhile they’re also monetizing on this big time. You’re probably not even projecting this, but what you need in your life is somebody to take you by the hand and give you a big hug and say, “You know what, you’re awesome. We’re going to take care of you and you’re in great hands.”
I just wanted to know if somebody saw me as a living, breathing human being. It’s not enough just to give me medicine. As a human being, I need that hug and a kiss figuratively or literally, everybody does. Everybody does particularly when they’re terrified by anything or sick. I was sick as a human could be. My life was in shambles. I didn’t know I might have had to have had surgery to remove the tumor, in which case I would have lost my voice. I don’t know about you, but to make a living, I got to talk. Here I am, I have enormous debt. I have an infection. I have cancer. I may lose my voice and not be able to work and my wife and I are at logger heads. It’s like, “What else can go wrong here? I can’t sort of think of anything?”
[Tweet “It’s how you do to a patient, not what you do, but how, that’s customer service. “]
That’s a huge amount in your plate so I don’t want to minimize that at all. When you’re at the lowest of your lows, and I’ve been there too, not like at your level, but it’s all relative to your own situation, everybody’s situation. At what point in time did your mindset shift and you’re going from my life is a wreck, all these bad things are happening, nobody cares about me, the medical community, I’m not sure if I even want to live to I do want to live. I see my calling and I want to understand what that purpose was, what was calling, what was the mindset.
It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. With all of that mess going on, not to mention six figures of debt and not feeling worthy of even breathing, everything is a wreck financially, professionally, romantically. I realized that I had a key man life insurance policy still from the studio. Even though I didn’t own it anymore, I still had been paying premiums on a key man life insurance policy. I realized that if I was to die, that the payment of that key man would wipe out all the debt and put my family on easy street for the rest of their life. I was self-administering fentanyl patches, which are an extremely powerful anesthetic. I had unlimited amounts of them to use as I thought necessary and I realized that if I put enough of those on, that I would just fall asleep and stopped breathing. It would look like an accident and they’d be able to collect. I didn’t know how many to put onto to where it didn’t look like I was committing suicide. All of a sudden, overnight, it’s like this guy is clearly trying to end his life.
I had made the decision that that’s the only way I could have value for my family. I could escape the pain, I could leave them set up. I could fix the mess I had gotten everybody in to by getting cancer and I decided that that was what I was going to do, but I needed to know how many patches to put on or what’s too much. My brother-in-law, a fellow named Dr. Dean Edell, who used to be a huge radio and television medical host of his own radio show and television shows, came to visit one day. I decided he was the guy who I was going to ask the question. I had to tell them the story, which I was deeply ashamed of. I’m going to end my life. I’m going to quit. I’m a quitter on top of everything. The shame was worse than the physical pain. “Dean, I got a story to tell you,” and I told him the whole story from start to finish. He did some pretty amazing things. Number one was he sat, he never said a word. He listened intently, and showed me the respect that one person can show another by just listening to their story. He also didn’t judge me for quitting or shamed me or for ending my life and leaving his sister without a husband.
When I was done, the first thing out of his mouth was an apology. He said, “I am so sorry for what you went through and what drove you to this place. It breaks my heart. It’s unforgivable what you experienced. Worse yet, you’re not the exception. It happens every single day because medicine now is so much about serums and technology and techniques and procedures that the human side, the compassion in addition to treatment is being pushed to the side of the road. You’re the example of exactly what happens to millions of patients every single year. I really apologize. I’m a doctor and I’m part of the mess. May I make a suggestion?” “Yeah. Go ahead.” He said, “One of my pleasures is customer service. Any business I’ve ever been in, you got treated like a royalty because you’re the key to our business. You’re a customer service expert, and if you look at it, how you do to a patient, not what you do, but how, that’s customer service.”
You’ve written books, you’ve lectured, and you’ve taught, you’ve consulted Fortune 500 companies, so you understand customer service from a business. You’re a C-level executive so you know how customer service makes money for businesses. You’ve been a perpetual patient your entire life. You’ve been in the hospital more than any twelve people I know. If you live, you will also be a cancer survivor. How about this? Rather than ending your life, how about you fight your tush off? If you live, how about you spend the rest of your life working with medical professionals to try to inspire and remind them about the power of compassion in addition to great treatment, the necessity of that to offer patients the best chance to heal.”
You talked a lot about compassion. What was bouncing back at me is not only were you getting compassion, but what you’re feeling probably the first time in a long time because this long list of crazy stuff that had been in your life, you experienced, knocked on the head was this little word called ‘significance’. When you feel significant, is the first point of recovery towards something feeling like you’re worthy and that you do deserve love and happiness. It goes one step further for you. Suddenly your brother-in-law was able to give you a sense of purpose. If you were willing to accept that and move that into your life and take that on.
It’s exactly what he did. Not only did he reignite my desire to fight and live, but he said, “Why don’t you start a compassionate movement to see if you can’t get medical professionals to remember and bring compassion back to the forefront of modern medicine?” All of a sudden it’s like, “I want to live because I have a purpose that can make a difference so nobody else has to go through what I went through these last few weeks and he gave me a vehicle to do that.”We establish what we called the C.A.R.E. Effect Movement to do exactly that.
C.A.R.E. is actually an acronym. Let’s talk about what those letters mean.
C stands for Connect. When I was treated that poorly at that hospital, there was no connection whatsoever. I never felt, seen or heard by any of those people. It was like I was invisible. It was like I had no value, no worth, that I literally was physically invisible to those people. The opposite of that, rather than treating people like a number, like an aging white male in 2212 with cancer and infection, is you need to connect with them. You need to know something about them as human beings. You need to speak to them about their lives. You need to speak to them about their families. You need to speak to them about their fear.
When you do that, human beings connect and we are hardwired to need that. If you don’t touch a newborn baby for some period of time, leave them completely isolated, they will die. We don’t need it less as adults. We may even need it more because we’re cognitively more aware of our pain than an infant. Number one is connect. If you connect, you’re starting to be compassionate. A is Attention. You need to pay attention to your patient’s need, not about you. It’s irrelevant if you had a bad day. It’s irrelevant if you’re cranky. You need to pay attention to the patient because their life depends on it. Being compassionate with a patient literally arms their immune system in a way that has a dramatic impact on their ability to survive anything, so pay attention.
R, Respect. You need to say, “Please.” You need to say, “Thank you.” You need not to interrupt a patient when they’re speaking because you know the answer before they finish their question. You need to show them simple respect. E is Emotive, is expressive. You need to be real with the person. You need to express your thoughts, your feelings, yourself, your realness with them. If you do all four of those, you will have given compassionate care. Did you connect? Did you pay attention? We’re you respectful? Did you emote? Did you express yourself?
If you did, you gave them the very best. According to the World Health Organization, they said something along the lines of psychosocial care, which is the other side of the physical part of medicine. It’s dealing with the emotional part of medicine and is essential to the most effective treatment of cancer. If you want to give your cancer patient the highest chance of survival, you must deal with their emotional side and the answer to that is treating them with compassion. It’s simple. It’s just apparently really hard.
Where you’re at now, you’re healthy, you’re happy, a lot of things are behind you, do you now go into hospitals and clinics and conferences?
Medical schools and nursing schools, yeah.
They’re so focused on their craft that they forget these other things. If you strip out everything you said and you go straight to the pocket book, it seems like if you can get them in this ecosystem that now become referrals and testimonials and good results. If everybody needs to go to XYZ hospital, then more people, it’s more business and the bottom line is the bottom line.
What’s interesting about compassion and giving it or not in a medical setting, forgetting everywhere else, it’s desperately needed, but the medical benefits, faster recovery, more likely recovery, longer term health, less depression, less opioid addiction. The benefits for patients are provable. It’s not just about feeling better because you’re cared about. It has tangible, measurable, significant medical benefits. If you’re in the business, do no harm. If you don’t give your patient compassionate care in addition to good treatment, you’re doing harm. That is not acceptable, and my job is to remind them of that. When you got into medicine, you got in it to relieve the suffering of another. If you’re not doing it to the highest degree that you humanly possibly can, you’re not fulfilling your oath. You’re not even living the life that you did the day you got into medicine and that’s not okay with you at the end of the day.
All those benefits for a patient; the provider, the professional gets the exact same benefits. When you are kind, caring, and compassionate for a patient, for your colleague, for a stranger on the street, your husband, your kids, your family, it does the same thing for your immune system. Not to mention patients write your nice letters to your boss, which means you have great job security. You have a much happier work when you’re giving compassion, people who do that are happier. They enjoy life more. Their job is more satisfying because they get more positive feedback from their patients and their colleagues and their bosses.
If you’re in talking to a bunch of medical professionals, doctors, nurses, med students, from their standpoint they’re going, “I got Jimmy at 12:00,Suzie at 12:30, Bobby at 1:00, and my time is limited.” It’s not that I’m not trying to be compassionate, attentive, and respectful, it’s just a matter of, “I’ve got to get in there, I’ve got to do something that is an objective and treat them. I only have so much time in that room before I have to go on to the next patient and deal with them.” How do you get around that?
It’s really simple. It’s like, “Your medical professionals, both of those according to the World Health Organization, are essential to the treatment of cancer patient and if it’s cancer patients, it’s everybody else too.”First of all, you’ve got to realize there is no excuse. Compassion is not a function of time at all. When you’re a kid, you played football. You were hurt all the time. When you were a little and you got a really bad boo-boo, you run to the emergency room, check yourself in, tell them that you had a severe laceration. That isn’t what you did. You ran to your mother and what did you want from her?
Love and compassion.
You want a hug and a kiss. Probably didn’t go, “Mom, excuse me. Can I have a little compassion, please?” You wanted a hug and a kiss. How was your pain after you got that hug and a kiss?
It feels a lot better.
It was a lot better so it absolutely works. All we want from you is something that shows me that you see me as a person. “Did you remember something from our last conversation about my kids? Did you remember about my golf game? Did you ask me what my score was? How’s my handicap?” That takes a second, but it takes the intention to find out something personal about that person and speak to it.
We’re social creatures and we all need it.
He didn’t want just to kiss, although that probably would have been enough. I want a hug and a kiss. Human beings are hardwired for touch. It is unless you’re being attacked, but given in a loving way. Physical touch releases certain drugs into your body, which are enormously powerful at fighting disease. Just physical touch. How long does it take to shake your patient’s hand? How long does it take to put your hand on their arm?
It’s a story of overcoming adversity. It’s finding your way. How was it doing a TED Talk?
It’s the most fun I ever had with my clothes on. I am one of the most rabid fans of TED Talks. I listen to them every single week. I don’t like them all, but my attention span is just about that long. I have always wanted to do one. There’s a company called Eli Lilly that makes a drug called Erbitux, which is one of the drugs that I took during my chemotherapy. They contacted me. They wanted me to come because they knew that I’d used that drug and they knew that I was no evidence of disease and they said, “We’d really like to have you come talk to Erbitux National Sales team. Just tell them how Erbitux helped your life and helped your treatment. We’ve seen your videos and we produce a TED event here at Eli Lilly annually. We’d like you to lead ours off next year.”
It was like that, “Five years, no evidence of disease. You’re cured.” It’s like one of those, “You’re inviting me?” I don’t have to beg. Even though you’re not supposed to, they found a way to pay me for that other talk. I got to do a TED Talk and did nothing to make it happen. It was magic. Thirteen seconds before I walked on stage, I was still debating different points in my brain and then I just went, “Say what you’re going to say. Let’s get this thing moving.” I walked out, and the rest is history. It was magic.
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I saw the TED Talk and it was fantastic. One of the things that always impresses me is the clear, concise, to the point, no pauses. You hit it on all measures and there was a lot of humor that was involved in telling her story about how you’ve overcome and how you’d hit rock bottom and making your way back out of it. You’re up there in a medical gowns and one sock on and then midway through it, you actually take it off and pull your pants up and putting on a suit and the whole thing just worked. The message at the end of the day was very effective and what you’re talking about on two different levels, certainly your focus, is within the medical community. If you take that out of it, everybody on the planet could be involved in this C.A.R.E. Movement. They’re all great words, humble, and kind.
I hear so many amazing stories about people overcoming their adversity, their hardship and what they had to do. The common thread on every single person is what that magical moment was for them where it shifted. It certainly shifted for me when I was going through my tough times, but for you to have your brother-in-law and that gave you purpose, it gave you a reason to live and go forth and now all the good that you’re doing towards everybody else and it’s just good stuff.
When I first had cancer, somebody said to me, “When one door closes, another one opens.”I want to smash him in the face. Are you kidding me? Ten doors have slammed on me. Don’t tell me about other doors until somebody said to me, “When one door closes, another door opens but we are so focused on the door that’s closed that we never see the ones that are opening.” That changed how I look at everything. I am a better human. My life is richer. I am living my purpose. I’m living with passion. My life is spectacularly good right now and none of that would’ve been true if I hadn’t had cancer. It has been a blessing for me. I don’t want it and I don’t want anybody to have it. I won’t recommend it as a way to learn, but it has been a blessing for me.
We’re all dealt with lemons. I’ve had a bunch of lemons. What you do about it is make lemonade. I can tell you that you’ve cranked out a lot of lemonade and I salute you. I feel like I’m a better human being with you being down here and listening to your story. Again, I’m very grateful for that. Thank you, Lee. I appreciate you being here.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.