What Cancer Taught Me About Life, Love and Leadership I have Stage IV prostate cancer. Here's why I'm still smiling.

By Robert Ellis

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Courtesy of Robert Ellis

I have a photograph taken six years ago, just moments before I went under anesthesia for a prostate biopsy, grinning beneath my hospital cap. A few days later, I received my diagnosis — Stage IV prostate cancer with metastases to my pelvis.

You might wonder why I was smiling. And why I'm still smiling.

Two months before, I met the most incredible woman for a coffee date at a café in San Francisco.

I remember the day we got the news. We sat on the couch and wept together. Neither one of us knew what it meant. I thought, dramatically, that I might have a year to live. We both envisioned a future full of doctors and hospital visits, tedious treatments, surgery perhaps, and debilitating side effects.

I told her I wouldn't blame her if she wanted to call the whole thing off.

She said she thought I should move in with her.

I might need some help.

As an executive coach, I've worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and CEOs who've arrived at a place where the challenges seemed insurmountable, and everything they've worked for feels in jeopardy of being lost, not unlike receiving a cancer diagnosis.

I know people who talk to their cancer. They give it a name, paint it, dance with it. I tried talking to mine. "Why me?" I asked.


Then, I realized I was asking the wrong question. The real question was, What am I going to make cancer mean for me?

I decided cancer was my teacher. And it's taught me a lot.

1. Gather your allies.

It takes a team. I couldn't have made it this far without the love and support of a widening circle of friends and allies, including multiple oncologists, a support group of patients/scientists/hackers, and an ER doc (and his wife, who makes the world's best cookies) who frequently come to my rescue.

2. Cancer is a quest.

There is no cure for Stage IV prostate cancer…yet.

The experts love to talk about Standard of Care. I initially thought this implied a high standard of care, as in, we have standards, and rest assured you'll receive the best care. What it actually means is you'll be receiving the same care as everyone else with a similar disease.

I'm approaching the end of Standard of Care. There are no good options. There is no path. I told my oncologist, "We're off-roading now. We're on a quest."

He's not driving the bus anymore. I bring my research, we put our heads together, and I trust him to guide me to the best decisions.

Some things are predictable, path-like (I follow the protocols religiously). But when there are no good answers, you're on a quest. And every good quest begins with a good question.

Mine: how do I prolong my quality of life?

3. Everybody needs your love.

I wear a bracelet that reads, EVERYBODY NEEDS YOUR LOVE. It doesn't say, LOVE EVERYBODY. That's too hard. But if there's one thing cancer has taught me, it's that everyone carries a burden in life, and we all need each other.

Cancer taught me to love wholeheartedly and not to be afraid to say, "I love you."

This is the most important leadership lesson I know. If you want to be a powerful leader, understand that everyone in your company needs your love, care, and respect. They may not have cancer, but as someone once said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

4. Give yourself away.

We live in a world of form. All these things we're surrounded by that we keep bumping into. But also our thoughts. Thoughts are forms.

I used to be afraid to put myself out in the world. I tried to create a form—an identity—that would help me be successful.

Everyone has an essence, a natural way of being good in the world without any thought or effort on their part (organizations have essence, too).

I focus on being my best self. Why am I really here? What do I have to contribute? The more I align my actions with my essence, the more successful I become.

I'm doing my best to give myself away before I go.

Cancer made me fearless. What can anyone do to me that's worse than what the cancer will do to me?

I've never felt more alive.

5. Embrace life.

I think a lot about death. Everything comes to an end. We choose how we meet it. I'm not looking to squeeze every last breath from this body. When the suffering outweighs the joy, I hope I'll have the courage to let nature run its course.

I'm not at war with my cancer.

I'm embracing my life.

Robert Ellis

Founder of Futurosity and Coaching From Essence

Robert Ellis is the founder of Futurosity as well as Coaching From Essence, a training program for exceptional coaches. You can join the community and take the program completely free. He’s also the author of Coaching From Essence: How to Create a Thriving Practice Doing Powerful Work with Clients You Love (which is not just for coaches).

If you have cancer, please join the Cancer Patient Lab. It’s free.

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