Be patient. Especially with yourself, but also with others. This is not always easy. But you are going to have some downtime, so you’ll have a lot of time to practice.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Neruda.
Steve Neruda is the father of two college-age daughters and a rescue hound named Delilah. He is Operations Lead for the Global Communications team at Motorola Solutions, where he has worked for over 30 years. He has been treated twice for large B-cell lymphoma, and most recently had a bone marrow transplant in May, 2021.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I am a child of the suburbs — the Chicago suburbs, to be specific. Born and raised, with no plans to leave. I had a fairly non-descript, suburban upbringing — two parents, one sister and a dog. Graduated from the University of Illinois, came home, got a job, got married, had two kids… and a dog.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The one with the most relevance these days I remember from my father, but I’m sure it’s not original to him: “You never want to trade your problems for someone else’s — you never know what they are quietly dealing with.” And a bonus one, from Teller, the shorter, quieter half of the magic duo Penn & Teller: “Fear of looking silly is the worst reason not to do something.” I wish I had heard that advice earlier in life.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
Sure. I think it’s important to talk about these things — to demystify them. I’ve actually had two go-rounds with the same large, b-cell lymphoma. Initially in 2012, and a recurrence in 2020. I do not remember any great and terrible speech — no “well, it’s cancer!” moment. It was a series of steps, really. First was the lump in my left armpit. Could be a fatty deposit, could be something else. Let’s take it out. Turned out it was a lymph node, and we got all of it out. Test came back malignant, but it was already out of me. Still, best to start chemo. So, there was no huge moment — instead, just a series of smaller ones. In 2020, when a lump reappeared in my neck, I had a very strong sense of what it was. I was right, which was cold comfort, I suppose.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
Well, I should note I have no fear of needles, or surgeries, and have a deep abiding faith in science and modern medicine. So, while it was (very) concerning — and after a period of feeling sorry for myself — it became about “OK, what’s next? Let’s get on with it.” It helped, I think, that I was also fascinated with the process. I’m sure I aggravated my share of doctors, nurses and support staff by endlessly asking questions… but trying to intellectually understand what was going on helped distract me from the emotional aspect of it.
How did you react in the short term?
I suppose that’s best answered by the people around me — I *think* I largely undersold it when explaining to other people (family, work, friends) what was going on. Perhaps that was me trying to convince myself, but as a life-long, dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I also didn’t want the attention.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Starting with the easy one first: spiritually. While raised Catholic, I am an atheist, and not at all spiritual. I put my faith in the very smart people who were in charge of my treatment. I am also a famously unemotional person, so I was able to direct my energy into understanding the mechanics of what was going on. Unlike Han Solo, I always want to know the odds.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
My immediate family…including the dog. They know me best, and they understand how I like to deal with things. One Father’s Day, I remember responding to my kids’ question of what I wanted for a gift, replying “To be left alone, sitting in the dark.” That was (mostly) a joke, but they reminded me of it during chemo. And then they left me to sit alone, in the dark. Which is exactly what I wanted and needed. I know this is not the usual answer to this question, but I guess the larger lesson here is to listen to the person you are trying to help. They will tell you the best way you can do that, for them.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
This is a more philosophical question than I usually deal with, and one that I hadn’t considered previously. The closest I can come to answering it is this: people usually focus — understandably — on the things cancer takes away. I tried to recognize the things it can give you, if you let it: perspective (it becomes very easy to prioritize), patience (something I badly needed), and gratitude. As a control freak, I quickly learned that I could *not* control this. I couldn’t control the test results, or the treatment effectiveness, or even the treatment schedule, for that matter. I had to hand over control to people smarter and more knowledgeable than me in this area. Once I realized that, life got simpler.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
With round one, eight years ago, my big takeaway was how NICELY people treated you once they knew what you were dealing with. I imagine the lack of hair, sunken eyes and chemo-shuffle sent a pretty clear message. I used to joke that if we just treated everyone like they had cancer, the world would be a better place. For my recent round 2 (same disease, different chemo protocol followed by a bone marrow transplant) I’m not sure that’s still the case. I’ve sensed a coarsening of attitudes — even towards people actively going through treatment. I suppose we can blame short tempers after 18 months of living in a pandemic, but people seem a little less patient, a little less kind, and a lot less willing to take some simple steps (masking, vaccines) in the effort to overcome a common, shared health crisis. For the record, I was vaccinated for COVID during my rounds of salvage chemo, which potentially limited its effectiveness. Then the bone marrow transplant effectively wiped out all of my immunity, with insufficient data as to whether or not I should pursue re-vaccination at this time. So, when people talk about the “immuno-compromised” and you are not sure what that means, it means me.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I hope I’ve become more patient, more thankful, and with a broader perspective. And I also hope getting the message out about what I’ve been through helps demystify it slightly.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
“Cancer” is entirely too large a bucket. Even with lymphoma, there are tons of different diseases, and an even greater number of treatment options. For round 1, I had 30 days of radiation following the chemo, and it was the easiest thing in the world. As we were radiating my armpit, there were no vital organs involved. Zero side effects. None. It was effectively the same as shining a flashlight at me. But I know for some, radiation is the worst part. Everyone’s disease is different, their treatment is different, how they react is different. “Cancer” is just too broad a term to allow for deep understanding. Also, most people don’t know what to say to someone going through it. So, they trip over themselves, and say odd things like “You got this” or “You’re strong, you’ll be fine” at a time when you are at your weakest, and certainly don’t feel like you “got this.” But it’s OK. We understand. We’ve been in that position, trying to be supportive of others, and also didn’t and don’t know what to say. For my part, I’ve landed on “Well, that sucks.” (Because, well, it does) and then asking them how the treatment is going. This gives them an opening to vent a little if they need to. Most people will put on a brave face, so the opportunity to rant a little can be welcome.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
- Be patient. Especially with yourself, but also with others. This is not always easy. But you are going to have some downtime, so you’ll have a lot of time to practice.
- Listen to doctors and nurses — they have dedicated their lives to helping people in your circumstance, and they know all kinds of things you don’t.
- Become your doctor’s/nurse’s/technician’s/phlebotomist’s favorite patient. I learned this when I saw a report following a CT scan that noted “Patient has an uncommonly good attitude” which made me realize they probably note the opposite as well. Since I had a blood cancer, my standard go-to joke was “My blood type is O….No.” It’s possible — hell, it’s downright likely — they were pity-laughing to be polite, but they’ll also recognize they are dealing with a positive person… and who doesn’t prefer that? Very little will raise your own mood as much as bringing a small moment of unexpected levity to someone else.
- Ask a lot of questions. Knowing what’s going on makes things a lot less intimidating.
- Talk about what you are going through. For me, that meant talking a lot about the absurdities and indignities. For you, it might mean talking about your feelings. But talk about whatever allows you to get out of your own head for a few minutes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
At this moment in time, the greatest good for the greatest number of people would involve a whole lot of vaccinations. I would try to get people past the cynical idea that Big Pharma is somehow out to get them (yes, I realize the costs are wild — my running total in 2021 alone is 1.3 million dollars and counting). I would help them understand that doctors, nurses and staff (the legitimate kind, not the Facebook group kind) chose that career path with a sincere interest in helping people. They are not infallible, but they can be trusted to act in your best interest.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
There are a great number of folks who provided inspiration, from advice and imparted wisdom to badly needed distraction. So, sending out thanks to Ginger Wildheart for keeping mental health front and center. To Jose Andres, one day soon, I will again eat like a lion! And to Michael Poulsen, for his song ‘Dagen Før,’ which came along at just the right time.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Like most folks I have a presence on various social networks, but those are personal in nature — no professional websites.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!