Preaching to the cancer choir.

by unfinishedthinking

A few months ago, I had the privilege of being a closing speaker at The American Cancer Society’s annual leadership conference. The executives at the Society, agency clients for the past five years, asked me to introduce a new battle cry and to challenge the organization’s leaders to redouble their efforts. Here’s the talk I delivered on November 16, 2012.  That evening I’d fly to New York City, hopeful about starting my new trial program at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

It’s an honor to be here today with my fellow volunteers. 

A few weeks ago I told some of you that it shocks me to find that I’m in my 60s.  I remember when I was in my 20s or 30s, smiling at the old folks who couldn’t find their keys.  I was never going to be one of those grandpas who called one son by another son’s name.  I wasn’t going to still have the laundry tag on my shirt collar at 4 in the afternoon.  I wasn’t going to constantly push the wrong buttons on the remote control.  I wasn’t going to expect to get credit for something I did 20 years ago.

Now I do all those things.  I can’t help it.  I’m in my 60s.

The American Cancer Society is 99 years old.  And sometimes, we just can’t help it:  we act like we’re 99.  We move a little slower. Organizations one-tenth our size seem so much sleeker.  We can’t lose weight as fast as they can.  We can’t ski down the slopes like teenagers do:  we’re too afraid of falling down. We want credit for things we did in years long past.  We want respect for the undeniable successes we contributed to 10, 30, 50 years ago. We can’t help it—we’re almost 100 years old.

You know, there’s some undeniable truth in that feeling, but it isn’t really fair. Unlike people, organizations are infinitely renewable.  Coke and IBM are both 100-plus–and they’re doing just fine on the black diamond slopes. Hundred-year-old General Motors just jumped up three places to #5 on The Fortune 500.  Berkshire Hathaway, P&G, Johnson & Johnson and UPS are all stronger today because of the lessons they learned and the momentum they gained in their first 100 years.  There is no guarantee of wisdom as you reach 100, but there is experience, there are successes to build on. 

This is a time for renewal at The American Cancer Society.  It’s time for the official sponsor of birthdays to celebrate its 100th birthday—and for us to turn that birthday into a major opportunity.  This is the time to push the reset button.   It may not be smart of a politician to admit shaking up the Etch-a-Sketch and getting a fresh start, but our mission is too important to do anything else.  Change is exhausting, but when it starts taking hold, it can be exhilarating. 

We must behave like a transformed organization.  We won’t apologize for our size or our reach or our ambitions.  You don’t shrink to greatness.  But we won’t be bloated either.  We’ll be nimble, bold, a challenger.   Remember when skinny Oprah rolled out that wheelbarrow filled with the fat she’d lost?  She was triumphant. That’s what we will be.

We need a little edge, attitude… anger even.  Name a great cause that ever gained momentum without a dose of righteous indignation.  Here’s what we want the world to know in no uncertain terms:  The American Cancer Society, the largest, most experienced and most successful army of cancer warriors in history, is closer to victory than ever before.

Now the doctors, caregivers, researchers, donors, patients, families, friends, professionals, partners and volunteers of the American Cancer Society are stepping up their efforts, ready to finish the fight they started 100 years ago.

Success won’t come overnight, but new technologies, insights and research will make progress happen faster than ever before.  The Society itself has been streamlined—we’re structured for the way progress is made today.  More than ever before, the emphasis is on what’s important:  helping patients and their caregivers, investing in the most promising scientific explorations, raising funds, helping families develop healthier habits, finding cures.  Cancer won’t be and can’t be eradicated on any one front: prevention, research and patient support are all essential.  Complex questions must be addressed:  How will expensive new treatments be paid for?  How will resources be allocated?  How will policymakers be brought together for the general good? 

With 100 years of experience, with more success stories than any other organization in the battle, with real progress to point to, the ACS is about to embark on its most ambitious crusade ever.  As the official sponsor of birthdays, we are more determined than ever to eliminate cancer from the face of the earth.

I would love for all of us in this room to commit to making 20 years of progress in the next ten years. Think for a minute about the people you’ve lost from your life.  Your parents, maybe, or your grandparents.  Your siblings or your friends.  Maybe in some horrible cases, a child.  Think what you would give today for just a few more years with those people.  If we could eradicate cancer, we’d add years to the life expectancy charts.  We’d add billions of birthdays for billions of people.

We’ll never reach that goal without massive local activation and grassroots support for the society.   We need a battle cry to keep us motivated. The “It’s Morning in America” or “Think Different” or “Just Do It” idea that filters down through everything.  “Official Sponsor of Birthdays” is that kind of battle cry.  It’s that kind of big idea.  “Finishing the Fight” is another one. And Finishing the Fight will be our mantra as we enter our second century.

Of course, words alone won’t finish the fight, only actions will.  We need an audacious commitment to inspiring, headline-making actions.  Our 100th anniversary events will be built around stretch goals for the Society.  We will tell the world what our big ambitions are. —and we will set bold, ambitious goals.  If we want to make 20 years of progress in the next ten years, we’ll need fresh and gutsy commitments to take to the marketplace.

There’s another reason it’s hard for me to believe that I’m in my 60s.  In 1998, two weeks after my 50th birthday–and even though I’m a lifelong non-smoker, I was diagnosed with lung cancer.  I said earlier that I’m a volunteer—but I guess the fact is, I was drafted.

Back in ’98, I was told there was an 84% chance I’d be dead in five years–and that if I were in the lucky 16% that survived that five-year limbo, I’d be cured.  Five years came and went.  The cancer never went.  I’ve been in stage IV lung cancer since at least 2005.  I’ve had one lobe removed, multiple radiation treatments, at least seven or eight types of chemotherapy, multiple biopsies, a lung collapse and a pulmonary embolism that was almost certainly brought on by the cancer. (When I get together with others my age, we start the conversation by agreeing we’ll limit all health-related talk to ten minutes.  Otherwise we never get to anything else.)

My doctors tell me that no one really knows quite why I’m alive today.  I suppose it’s even possible that I’d be alive today even if I had never undergone all those procedures– even if I hadn’t spent one summer of my life at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Baltimore.  But I tell you what I believe.  I believe—I know–some of that stuff worked.  And I know beyond doubt that just about every procedure I’ve had, every regimen I’ve undergone was developed at least in part with help from this amazing 100-year-old organization.

To me, there’s no question that I’m alive today—and loving every minute of my life– because of the persistent, amazing care I’ve received from my persistent, amazing wife.  And there’s no question in my mind that I’m alive today and that I’ll celebrate my 65th birthday next May because of The American Cancer Society.

At my ad agency, we work for some wonderful clients–Walmart, Kraft, Morgan Stanley, many more.  You can blame us for all those crazy GEICO commercials.  But of all the great organizations we work for, none encourages me to challenge them more than this one.  Dr. Seffrin, Greg Bontrager, Greg Donaldson and Andy Goldsmith invite us to speak up, to be critical.  And we’re tough critics.  ACS’s long list of accomplishments over the past 99 years give me confidence that you can get things done—no one is more grateful for those breakthroughs than I am.  But at the end of the day I don’t care what you’ve already done.  I’m a cancer patient.  I care about what you’re going to do tomorrow.

So I challenge you to embrace new ideas.  For example:

         •I’d love to see this organization embrace and enlist the Silicon Valley geniuses who are developing new technologies every day–to get them to do more to help us in our cause. 

         •I’d love to see you raise billions more this decade than you would normally raise. 

         •I challenge you to encourage Congress to declare a new national holiday in honor of all the caregivers for all the diseases.     •I challenge you to become the International Cancer Society. 

      •There are clearly too many cancer philanthropies in the world today.  Of course, from where I sit, I’m glad there’s more than one.  That said, I challenge you to take the lead in reducing the duplication of efforts among your various friends and competitors. 

         •I challenge you to make Relay For Life into something more than just one-day marathons.  Turn it into something that makes us all healthier:  Instead of having just one-day events, give people the option of committing instead to walk, ride, bike or wheelchair at least 10 miles a week for a whole year. 

         •I challenge you to double life expectancy for at least five of the most deadly cancers in this decade. 

         Those are ideas I like.  Many of you in this room undoubtedly have better ones.  We clearly can’t do everything:  we always need focus.  But let’s do some things in a really big way.  We all know that famous quote from the architect Daniel Burnham:  Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…

Let’s go forward with ambition and with confidence.  Do not let the lousy economy and the Washington gridlock and the doom and gloom of the nightly news slow you down.  I repeat:  you are the largest, most experienced and most successful army of cancer warriors in history—and you are closer to victory than ever before. 

I take great pride in being part of your marketing team.  I promise you that we will be careful with every penny—and frankly, we’re not starting with many pennies.  It’s even tempting to say, let’s not put anything into marketing.  But the fact is, marketing can be one of our most important catalysts for transformation.  It can crystalize our message. It can reenergize the troops and point them in the right direction.  It can help us raise money.  It can help us save lives.  It can help us finish the fight.  It can help us give the world more birthdays.

People think they know what The American Cancer Society is.  We need to show them what we can be.

I’ve had lung cancer for at least 17 years. I am living, breathing proof that ACS can help make miracles happen.  You comprise the largest, most experienced and most successful army of cancer warriors in history—and you’re closer to victory than ever before.

Thank you for letting me preach my little sermon and make my big challenges. Thank you for letting me poke and prod and make naïve demands.  Thank you for letting me act as part of your great organization.

Let’s finish this fight.

 

 

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