How Hope Helped Me Face Cancer—Twice—And Thrive

Published on September 21, 2021

Growing up in a middle-class Detroit neighborhood, I remember surviving local street gangs fights, all the while hustling with part-time jobs just to get through college. As tough as it was, nothing could have motivated me more toward success than my Detroit upbringing.

Over the years of my career, I worked my way from an entry level position at IBM to second in command as one of the company’s top executives. Later, I served as CEO of Hughes Electronics, Comcast, and AT&T. These experiences leading some of the world’s top companies gave me first-hand knowledge of how to manage and overcome difficult challenges. However, in the early 1990s, when my doctors told me that I had late-stage leukemia, I faced a new challenge that not only threatened to derail my life, but potentially take it away.

Miraculously, I survived leukemia. One life-threatening cancer experience is enough for a lifetime, or so I thought. Fifteen years later, I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Once again, I was told that I might not survive.

If that was not enough, the disease and its harsh treatment regime triggered another disease—a rare form of nerve damage called Parsonage Turners Disease, which made my diaphragm all but useless and reduced its ability to 20 percent of capacity. In short, I could hardly breathe.  

In facing these compounding health issues, I could easily have lost sight of the light in cancer’s dark tunnel. It’s difficult to stay positive in the face of cancer. But instead, I made a deliberate decision to maintain hope and not let cancer define me or own me. I write about this in my book Cancer With Hope: Facing Illness, Embracing Life, and Finding Purpose.

Today, I’m 83 and thriving. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that no matter how bad it looks, there is almost always a path to hope. With hope, we can find the strength to face adversity; hope can get us through almost anything. It can even help us heal: many experts agree that hope plays a significant role in how cancer patients engage in their care and perhaps how they respond to treatments. 

My mission now is to help cancer patients everywhere find a path to hope. While each patient is different and there’s no single way forward, I have discovered a number of means for finding and holding onto hope even in the most difficult moments. They include:

Focus on the facts and what you DO know

The cancer journey is filled with doubt and uncertainty. It can be easy to get caught up in the despair of asking hypothetical questions and dwelling on “what ifs.” But the only way to manage all this uncertainty while remaining positive and hopeful is to focus on the facts: current test results, your doctor’s experience and recommendations, the latest data and research on your type of disease, and the very important fact that there are certain things we simply do not know about cancer.

Make a plan

Getting together with your health team to develop an action and treatment plan is far more constructive and empowering than worrying about things that are out of your control. Once the plan is in place, concentrate on executing it one step at a time without getting lost in the frightening and often confusing bigger picture of cancer.

Build an arsenal of resources

Nobody should be alone on the cancer journey. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of excellent resources out there for finding information, advice, support, and state-of-the-art treatment.  In my book I provide detailed vetted lists of: National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers (the gold-standard of cancer care); questions to ask your doctor and care team; trusted cancer websites; and much more. All are there to help ease your journey and improve your quality of life, which will strengthen your hope.

Reframe the crisis as an opportunity

Cancer dramatically changes our perspective on life and what we want to do with it. Many cancer patients, including myself, have experienced this change. In many ways, it’s the silver lining that comes with that dark cloud of cancer. When we fear that our days might be numbered, time becomes much more precious and there’s a strong desire to use it wisely, with meaning and purpose. One patient featured in my book, Christine, devoted her life to helping other cancer patients locate and enroll in clinical trials, another started a non-profit organization to provide support for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with my wife, Anne, I have donated most of my net worth to projects that advance medicine, help the disadvantaged, and hopefully make this world a better place. 

These initiatives have infused me with a sense of purpose which has expanded my hope and empowered my cancer journey.  In spite of the many challenges cancer brought into my life, it has taught me how much more I can do with my life.  I believe this has helped me thrive.

Mike Armstrong is the former Chairman and CEO of Comcast, AT&T, and Hughes Electronics. He began his career at IBM, where he spent more than three decades rising through the ranks to become chairman of the IBM World Trade Corporation. Having battled leukemia and prostate cancer, as well as serious illness throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he became an active supporter of Johns Hopkins Medical School and its hospitals after retiring from the corporate world in 2002. In 2005, he was named chairman of the Board of Trustees of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Now fully retired, Armstrong is on a mission to share his story as a two-time cancer survivor to help others on the cancer journey find hope. He and his wife Anne are donating most of their net worth to projects that advance medicine, help the disadvantaged, and make this world a better place.

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