By Steve Kelman

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From three gov IT cancer-fighters, a holiday shout-out for friends and support

Holiday thanks (Shutterstock: Karen Roach)

I recently received an email holiday wish (a format that has significantly replaced Christmas cards, as many blog readers have surely noticed) from Bill Arzt, whom I know from his time at Accenture (a company with which I did some work after leaving the government at the end of the 90’s).  Bill was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003, received chemotherapy for a year, and then remained in remission until 2011, when his cancer relapsed.

As many blog readers are likely aware, I too have been battling cancer (lymphoma in the brain) the last year.  Like Bill in 2011, I have had a state-of-the-art procedure involving harvesting and redepositing my own stem cells, to replace white blood cells killed by the very aggressive chemo they give you to try to prevent the cancer from coming back. (For reasons too complicated to explain, for Bill’s cancer they don’t give you a transplant unless your cancer recurs, while for mine they don’t wait.)  Bill has been cancer-free since 2011; for me it is too soon to know for sure, but I am also hopeful I will become a cancer beater.

Bill mentioned in his email that he had recently had lunch with Bob Lam, a senior Accenture business development person whom I had met while still in government, and who had become a close friend over the years. In responding to Arzt, I copied Lam.  Lam quickly got back to me with an idea: That Bill and I should, during the holiday season, take the opportunity to thank those who stood by us during our illness, and to remind others how much such help means to people going through this kind of tough life event.

Bill and I both agreed this was a good idea. As I considered this, I asked my old friend Chris Dorobek, a veteran IT journalist around town (including former editor-in-chief of FCW!) who is still in the middle of a cancer battle, to join us. Chris was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year, got surgery, discovered there had been some spread, and is now about to start radiation treatment for the spread. Now, as we head into Christmas, the three of us want to share our messages.

Bill writes:

Being diagnosed with a chronic and possibly fatal disease is an object lesson in what out grade school teachers taught us in the 1950s:  faith, hope and charity.  At Christmas, it is a living reminder of the true meaning of the season.

The first communication of the diagnosis and prognosis is emotional free fall. All your years of education fail you, and it becomes an act of faith.  Faith in your medical providers, and in the current state of medical and treatment research.  Faith in the governance of your employer and insurer.  Faith in the administration of medical benefits on expenses that can be astronomical in size, complicated in adjudication, and high in volume.  And faith in your family and loved ones, who will provide the support and help at home and in the hospital.

You learn a whole new vocabulary never taught in your specific field of endeavor, and counterintuitive to previously used terms of art.   You yearn for results from medical tests that the doctor deems “unremarkable.”  You are thrilled when tests are “negative.”

While the circumstances of your medical case can be quite daunting, hope is a beacon that shines through the darkness of suffering. Hope brings comfort through the medical procedures.  It brings socialization, empathy and humor to a set of circumstances that can easily be fatal. 

In between procedures, tests, and recuperation, there is a lot of time.  Time spent of fatalistic ruminations is wasted time. As a patient you have an abundance of time, and that time provides you the opportunity to be a consultant to your doctors, to  refine and prescribe changes to the complex processes and specialized resources needed to treat your ailment. Consultants can make difficult patients. 

I am still in awe of, and ever so grateful for, the charity and kindness our family and friends have extended through several years of chemo, recovery, transplant, recovery, extended hospital stays and procedures both planned and unplanned. These loved ones organized blood donations for transfusions, provided family meals, supported other family members in my absence from home, offered transportation and logistics, and delivered prayers and support at so many levels. Reflecting on their giving and support, I am still in amazement of what friends have extended over these many years.

We are truly blessed with a medical system staffed by truly caring and exceptional people, and by a body of research that has enabled many of us to still be on this earth, each as a modern-day Lazarus.

It is through the faith of the doctors and nurses, who (to quote Dan Akroyd and John Belushi) are truly on a “mission from God,” that we made it through.  And we are so ever grateful to them, our colleagues, our families, and our friends for this opportunity to say, again, thank you and God bless you.

Chris writes:

This has been a year filled with challenges for me -- cancer, divorce, oh my. But one of my highlights is Steve's battle -- and I'm thrilled it seems successful. (One of the many terrifying things about cancer for me is you never fully go back to a place where you don't fear that it will return -- and yet we sometimes dream of a time where that is our biggest worry.)

I have told him privately -- and I will now say it publicly -- Steve has been a beacon... for good government... for government innovation... He has been a true leader, and I, personally, am ecstatic that all signs are positive.

Some of my lessons learned through all this:

  • It matters: For me, the support of this community has been an essential part of my support. Cancer is complex because it affects your health on so many levels -- yes, physical, but also emotional... and both need to be working together. One friend who has dealt with his own bouts with cancer once told me that often one of the most challenging part of cancer is having to wake up every morning and be strong. Cancer is relentless -- and sometimes you are just tired... or sad... or angry. The support -- in all forms -- makes a difference. One friend, Ed Meagher, who has seeming endless depths of ability to support others, took to Facebook this summer to coordinate a moment of coordinated, focused positive energy for me. As corny as it might sound to some, for me it makes a difference.
  • It is transparent: We all have challenges in our life. I certainly don't want to be defined by those challenges. That being said, I also believe that information is power -- and that information is most powerful when it is shared. I hope that my experience with cancer -- and an openness about it -- may spur people to talk about these issues in a more open way... maybe prompt somebody get a colonoscopy... maybe talk to a friend, family member or colleague about it. Another friend who just found out that he is cancer free told me: "I was inspired by your and Steve Kelman’s efforts to be very public with this issue, and I hope these efforts make people start to talk and take action."

I have much to live for -- an amazing son whom I love and adore in ways that I couldn't have possibly imagined... a job where I get to help government do its job better in whatever way I can... and I'm not done yet. Similarly, I believe Steve has more work to do too. 

#KelmanStrong makes us all stronger. I honestly think of Steve every day -- and try to let him know that as often as possible. 

Thanks for all in our federal IT community for all you have done... for Steve... for Bill... and for me. It helps! 

Steve writes:

After getting sick, I was amazed and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and consideration that cascaded my way. A good deal of this came from personal visits in the hospital and at home – though since I am in Boston, this particular aspect of support didn’t involve the Washington-based federal IT community so much as local friends and colleagues.

The number of people who took time to visit, often more than once, touched me more than they can know. They came with food to supplement the hospital regimen, and to ease some of the burden of cooking at home. They brought books for me to read, and above all showed kindness and concern. Some of their visits literally made me choke up with tears of gratitude. In re-examining my own life in the context of my illness, I realized that I had not been enough of a presence in the lives of my friends because, like many of us, I was preoccupied with work. Thus, people were more supportive, frankly, than I had a right to expect. I realized that, if I recovered, I would need to improve.

The rise of social media has also made a real difference. Some of my Facebook posts about my illness received over 500 “likes” and tens of personalized comments from Facebook friends.  Each one touched me.  Chris’s Twitter hashtag of #KelmanStrong was particularly meaningful.

Bill, Chris, and I want, during the holiday season, to thank those who have helped us.  But just as important, we also want to communicate to all blog readers a message about how crucial such support is for any person battling a tough illness. Please take some time when and if you have a friend or colleague in this situation, and find a way, hopefully in a personalized way, to show them you care.  We absolutely guarantee that this is the best gift you can give.

A peaceful and joyous holiday season to all!

Bill Arzt
Chris Dorobek
Steve Kelman

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 23, 2015 at 2:52 PM


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