Sunday, May 5, 2019

I'm Not That Old

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Satchel Paige

I had a very chatty Uber driver a couple weeks ago.

On the way from my hotel to the airport, Mohammed (“Ned”) asked what brought me to St. Louis. I told him that I was there to teach some classes and help out at an industry event, coaching other business owners to help them succeed. He was intrigued, so he asked me more questions: why St. Louis, where the conference was, and how long I’ve been doing this.

I told Ned that I’ve been helping to facilitate these events for about a decade, spent five years on the board of directors of the non-profit that runs them, and now still travel to help out when I can. Then I told him that I’ve owned my own business for nearly eight years, but have been involved in my industry off and on (mostly on) for over 20 years (nearly 28 to be exact, as I was 12 when my parents opened their first business and I would “help out”).

“Twenty years!?,” he exclaimed. “You don’t look like you’re old enough for that!”

I told Ned that I’d be 40 in a few weeks. He stared at me in the rearview mirror with a slightly confused look in his eyes, then flattered me and told me that he would have guessed my age much younger.

Ned proceeded to tell me that he himself was 41 … and then it was my turn to look slightly confused. I held my tongue and refrained from telling him that I would have guessed his age much older.

I liked Ned. His eyes told me that he his life hasn’t always been easy, but his positive attitude and cheerfulness told me that he has a bright future; he’s just getting started.

I remember when my parents each turned 40. I was quite young then, but still remember the over-the-hill signs, black balloons, age-insulting greeting cards, jokes, and general state of pall that we tried our best to instill in the air. It was funny for us. But, looking back, my parents were still so young then! They were just getting started.

A few months ago, I had to get my first pair of readers. I joked at the time that I was “prepping for the middle ages.” But then someone corrected me and said that “40 isn’t middle aged!” And I got curious. So, I Wikipediaed it. Indeed, the U.S. census defines “middle age” as 45-64. Other sources define it as starting as early as 35, which seems entirely too young to me. But 40 seems to be the most commonly accepted number.

While I was doing research, I also wanted to definitively find out when a person is “over the hill.” I thought for sure it was also 40, but then some hokey recently corrected me on that as well. So, I turned to Google and—surprise, surprise—I was correct on that too. By and large, “over the hill” is defined as starting at 40.

So, with all that settled, I can confidently say that I’ll soon officially be “over the hill” and “middle aged"intimidating phrases, indeed!

For the past year, I’ve seen post after post as nearly everyone else in my graduating class has hit 40. (I was one of the younger ones in my class, so I’ll be one of the last to hit the mark.) Most of them look great! Some are settled in, raising families, with growing/grown kids (and some with grandkids); some are starting new chapters and off on fantastical adventures; some seem very successful while others may have had a rough go of it for a while. But, more often than not, my peers are looking young, feeling young, and still acting young. They’re just getting started.

I returned to my research to see what celebrities were born in 1979 who also turn 40 this year and was surprised by some of the notables: Kate Hudson, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Love Hewitt, John Krazinski, Adam Levine, Rosario Dawson, Claire Danes, Jason Momoa, Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, and Pink. I would have thought some of these people to be younger than I am (and a few I would have thought to be older but holding up well.) But, no, they’re all my age! Some have had long careers, some are starting their second act, and some are just getting started.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. I see a lot of my clients’ IDs and It amazes me how wrong I often am in trying to pin someone’s age down by looks and attitude alone. We’re all a product of our genetics, lifestyle, health, habits, past experiences, activity level, self-care (or lack thereof), stress level, responsibilities, surroundings, and flat out dumb luck.

As the old saying goes, “You’re only as young as you feel.” I feel incredibly lucky to feel young, and apparently look young. Yes, if you look closely you’ll find plenty of grey hairs. And, as would be expected after four decades of wear and tear, I have plenty of weird aches and pains … but they’re manageable. I’m definitely not 18 anymore, but just when I may be feeling a little “over the hill,” someone like Ned comes along and makes me feel incredibly young again.

Indeed, I’ve been very lucky. And I’m very grateful for the advantages I’ve been given. But attitude trumps luck, and it’s our attitude that can make all the difference in how old we act and how old we feel.

I’m just getting started.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Letting Go to Grow

I’m sitting in my little office in the back of my shop, listening to Aleah and Clark have conversations with our clients. I can trust what they’re saying. I can hear their smiles. And I smile.

Over the past year, these two Uncle Marty’s team members have gotten to know our regulars by name. They’ve built relationships and rapports with each, building on the foundation that I had hoped so much would support this business when it got to the point where a team was necessary. And now we’re at that point. The team is being built and, as I sit here listening, they’re doing exactly what I had hoped: forging relationships that keep people coming back again and again.

Sometimes I’ll hear a client ask one of them something and my knee-jerk reaction is to hop off my chair, scurry to the front counter, and take over the conversation. I’m a classic over-explainer, and my ego wants to make sure things are said the way I feel they are best said. But I’m learning to restrain myself and just listen … and what I hear is music to my ears.

Aleah and Clark know what they’re doing; they know what they’re talking about. They answer clients’ questions professionally, with positivity in their voices and always an offer to make things simple. They’ve adopted language that I feel is important, like never saying the arbitrary, overused, and often meaningless “Have a nice day,” but rather inviting the customer to come back at the end of the transaction by saying something like “See you next time!” They always smile before answering the phone, which is an important facet of our culture here at Uncle Marty’s. And they have had enough experience to know how to answer some of the more detailed or tough inquiries; when they encounter something new that hasn’t come up before, or need clarification on something, they push the button on the front counter that rings a doorbell in my office and I come right up to assist as needed. It’s working out so very nicely.

Since the team has been independent enough to cover the front lines, I’ve been able to spend a lot more time working on the business instead of in the business. Yes, I still spend full-time hours (and then some) at the shop helping clients and doing all of the things a small business owner needs to do, but I’m also able to sit at my desk more and work on the books, think about marketing, explore new ideas, and get my head together. I’m able to leave the shop more easily to attend community meetings, travel to workshops to learn and grow, and spend a little bit more time managing some of my other responsibilities outside of the business. There’s still a long way to go and my to-do and idea lists are just as big as ever, but the release I’ve felt in the past few months because of this amazing team has made a huge impact on … well, everything!

We just celebrated Aleah’s one-year workiversary as part of the Uncle Marty’s team. She started last April right after the person I had hired before her quit in a huff (to the benefit of everyone, as he was terribly grumpy and would have soon been fired.) Aleah’s attitude is why I hired her; her aptitude is what has allowed her to grow in this business so fast.

Almost exactly six months after Aleah started, I hired her brother Clark. And just yesterday, a year after Aleah and six months after Clark, I hired another member of the family: their brother Callum. They join me (and my friends and family who so graciously help when I’m in a pinch) to form quite a powerful (even if a bit peculiar) team here at Uncle Marty’s.

Each one of these amazing siblings brings something new to the business. Aleah stands out with her incredible reliability, creative flare, strong work ethic, and even-keeled personality; Clark has a good mind for business and an interest in marketing, and is someone I often use as a sounding board for new ideas; Callum is an engineer through and through, eager and able to fix anything and everything that needs fixing, and I can’t wait to discover what else he’ll bring to the team.

Sara Blakely said, “If somebody can do something 80 percent as good as you think you would have done it yourself, then you’ve got to let it go.” This is excellent advice for anyone who owns or manages a growing business. But letting go means trusting. And trust takes time to build, especially for a micromanaging personality like my own. I’ve found it though. I trust this team, and as a result I’ve felt a mega burden lifted off my shoulders.

I have a 6am flight tomorrow to St. Louis for an industry conference—AMBC’s Basic Training Weekend 2019, at which I’ll be teaching certified training courses in advanced packing techniques and international shipping. Normally when I’m away for things like this, my retired parents would come in to graciously babysit their grandstore. And they’ll still be here this weekend to fill in a few little holes in the schedule, but the rest of team will have things otherwise well covered. My last few trips have been so much more relaxed because of the trust that I’ve found; I check the cameras less and less, and don’t feel like I need to call the shop every half hour “just to make sure everything is OK.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I still spy and I still call, just not as much as I used to. I’m learning to let go, and as a result have become much more able to let the business grow.

I won’t have Aleah, Clark, and Callum forever, nor would I want them to work here forever. It wouldn’t be fair to them. They’re all students—young, full of promise, and on their way to great things. So, while they’re here I’m going to be grateful and do my best to support them, with hopes that this work experience can be a stepping stone for their bright futures. And when it’s time for them to move on to their next chapters, I hope they’ll know that they always have a home here … because, while I hope this business grows into something very big with different locations, managers, and multiple layers and levels of whatever, at this point it’s still very much a family business, and they’re part of the family that has made it awesome.

So, here I sit … listening, with a very grateful, joyful, full full heart. This team is awesome, growing stronger and stronger with each conversation. I’m one lucky dude.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty

Also published on on April 25, 2019.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

It's a Small, Small World

I just got back from a vacation—the first real vacation I’ve had in over eight years.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve traveled plenty, but it seems it’s always been for a conference, summit, gig, meeting, funeral, or some other event that I needed to be at. In fact, this weekend I’ll be in Delaware for a wedding open house, then the next weekend in Albany for some faith meetings, and then the following weekend in St. Louis to teach at an industry event. Sometimes it feels non-stop.

I’m not complaining. Goodness, no! I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been afforded and privileges I’ve had. I knew the grind that I was getting into when I opened my business, and I could easily have said no to everything else that has come my way … and to many things I've had to do just that. But, for the most part, the opportunities I’ve said yes to have led to wonderful privileges, honors, and the ability to connect with people on much bigger stage than I would otherwise have had access to. It’s awesome!

When I’ve traveled for events, occasionally I’ve been able to tag on an extra day or two piggybacking them to get a little down time, but that’s not the norm. Usually, I’ve needed to rush back because of my business—a venture that has demanded much more than my full-time attention since 2011. And, yes, over the years there have been a few times when I’ve been able to sneak away for an occasional weekend here and there. Like this past New Year’s when timing worked out that my business would be closed for a long weekend, so I went to Montreal for a few days. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been able to take an official, just for Marty, gone more than a few days, gosh darn legit vacation.

I don’t even know if we can call last week anything significant as far as the grand scope of possible vacations goes. It’s not like I had to break out my passport or anything. I just went to Florida—a couple days getting sand in my toes at a resort in Cocoa Beach, then a couple days poolside with my nose in a book in Orlando, and finally a few days staying with friends in Kissimmee, doing the Disney thing. Regardless of the caliber of the get-away, the bottom line is that I finally spent a full week out of the office on a non-event related trip. And that’s a huge win for me.

Lately, I’ve mostly traveled in social media silent mode, choosing to abstain from posting anything and therefore avoid comments like “Oh, you’re in Phoenix! Let’s have lunch!” or “OMG! I’m in Vegas too! Where are you staying!?” or “Why didn’t you come see me!? I’m only an hour away from there!” While I’d love to have the time to see friends and family in different parts of the country, time is so limited on those trips that it’s easier to just not post than to disappoint or offend anyone that I’m just not able to get together with. Besides, when I do get the chance to get away, the whole point is to do just that: get away.

You see, as an introvert I crave nothing more than shutting the world out and having time all to myself. It’s why I prefer to live alone, dine alone, and travel alone. I’m not saying that I don’t like people. On the contrary, I’m outgoing, a great host and entertainer, and have made a decent career because of my personality and the connections I’ve made. But entertaining drains me, and I need to be alone to recharge. Extroversion and introversion have much less to do with personality or people skills and much more to do with what a person needs to be energized: extroverts get their energy from being around people, while being alone drains them; introverts like me recharge when they’re alone and eventually lose their oomph if they don’t have enough personal space.

Anyway, last week while I was in Florida I decided I’d break my social media silent trend and go ahead and post some updates, figuring that I could just politely say no if someone wanted to bogart my vacation with—Heaven forbid—a friendly visit. And this plan worked like a charm. That is, until one of my favorite people—my dear cousin with whom I haven’t spent time in nearly 10 years, since the days we both lived in New York City at the same time (to this day the only cousin I’ve ever lived in the same city as … ever)—saw one of my posts and reached out to me because she too would be in Orlando later in the week for a conference. For her, I was genuinely excited to make plans to meet up.

In fact, it worked out perfectly. I was nearing the end of my trip and had already planned to stay with friends from that point on, with my best friend flying in the same day to meet me and do the Disney parks together. My best friend, you see, is a Disney annual passholder (which, by the way, if you cover up the “p” on makes for wonderful hilarity amongst friends) and was on her way down to join me for a few nights with her cousin/goddaughter and boyfriend, who both work at the Disney parks and had offered to put us up and give us insider tours. So, long story long, on Thursday night my best friend, her cousin, her cousin’s boyfriend, her aunt (who also happened to be there at the same time), my cousin, and I all met at Disney Springs for an evening out. It was delightful!

Contrary to what it must seem like at this point, this actually isn’t a story about travel, family and friends, introverts and extroverts, Disney parks, vacations, or any such thing. It’s actually a story about the power of a brand and the validation I’ve just recently realized in my own brand’s reach and strength. Let me explain…

My friends and family all know my brand: Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office. My business has a recognizable logo and a loyal following in my community and online. My team and I make sure that every box we sell is branded with our logo—a simple step that has made a big difference in our marketing efforts. Box branding is intended mostly for local reach, with our boxes being used around town, acting as mini billboards for the business. And every now and then I’ll get a message or see a post from somewhere far away where our boxes have landed, which is always cool to see.

So, imagine how cool it was when my cousin—the one with whom I had dinner Thursday night, but hadn’t really seen for 10 years prior—texted me on Friday and said that someone just walked into her conference in Orlando carrying a box with my brand on it! She recognized the logo immediately, stopped him, explained that she was my cousin and had just seen me the night before, and asked what his story was.

It turns out that this guy happened to be in my town a few days earlier and had stopped into my store to have his conference materials packed and express shipped to his hotel in Orlando. He said that Clark, my team member who waited on him, was exceptional and his experience was top notch (which, let me tell you, warmed Uncle Marty’s heart more than anything in the world). He had picked up his box of materials (bearing my brand, having been shipped from my store) from the hotel desk and was headed into the conference when my cousin saw him.

I was blown away. What are the odds? If I didn’t believe in the power of a brand before, I sure do now. And if I didn’t know the power of exceptional client service, creating a lasting impression and turning a walk-in customer into loyal advocate, I sure do now. This guy was really impressed with his experience, now brandishing my brand 1,200 miles away from its brick and mortar location and telling someone he just met how happy he was with service he received a few days prior.

Now, to put the cherry on top, when my cousin texted to tell me all of this on Friday, I was getting ready to go on the classic and beloved It’s a Small World ride. I know it’s cheesy, but that ride, along with Space Mountain, was one that I looked forward to the most. As our boat wound through its tunnels, with hundreds of animatronic children in cultural attire singing out …
It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all

… over and over and over, in slightly dyssynchronous, grating tones, I grinned … ear to ear.

(And for the cherry on top of the cherry, when my cousin boarded her flight back to Chicago on Saturday, the man with the box happened to be on the same flight. Whaaat!?)

My vacation was long overdue. On it, I finally truly relaxed. I let my hair down, let loose, and got a pretty sweet tan. But, most of all, I learned to trust more: trust my team, because they’ve got this; trust what we’ve built, because it’s got legs now and can stand without me having to shoulder every burden; trust the army of advocates that seven and a half years of outstanding service has created, because they’re going to fight for what they believe in.

And I know now—for sure, without a doubt—that the brand I and my team have created is something that people believe in. It’s not just something that has potential anymore, or something that someday may become something. It’s actually already something, and it’s making a difference and standing out in this small, small world.

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty


Also published on on April 11, 2019.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Time for Change

“The only thing that is constant is change.” – Heraclitus

Things are not the same today as they were yesterday, very different than they were a few years ago, and entirely different than they were decades ago. Our world, communities, and culture are changing fast, and with them our businesses must change too.

I’m not talking strictly technological or strictly procedural. No, the change we’re caught up in is a matrix: an intricate pattern woven together from strands representing every facet of our business environment, each evolving in its own right as time marches on.

Never before have the mores around us been so questioned. “Why is this the way it is?” “Why do we do this the way we do?” “Where did this practice come from, and why is it necessary today?” We’re in the middle of a reevaluation renaissance.

Einstein famously said, “Question everything.” He also said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It’s time for change.

I have a new team member starting next week—someone who spent many years, many years ago, working by my side in a similar business. She’s incredibly quick and will be up to speed in no time, but through her update process I’ve been reflecting on all the changes that I’ve seen since she and I last worked together.

Most noticeably, our systems have been revolutionized. Many of the ways we keep records, generate reports, and process clients are new. The way we market to our communities is quite different, now focusing on creating bonds through social posts and interaction. And the majority of the audience to whom we now market have needs and points of view entirely different than those of the generations before them, so we shift our offerings, adjust our services, and adapt to meet the demands of the new market.

The way we communicate has matured from traditional phone calls and the occasional email to a myriad of messaging platforms, putting access to our clients literally at our fingertips, and their access to us just as handy. The on-demand world we now live in has challenged us to show up, putting our best face forward no matter where we are.

Many of our newer profit centers are ones that would never have entered our imaginations a few years ago, and many of the ones that were our primary focus back then have all but died out. Some of the products we sell are inventions of just the past couple of years, and some of the products we sold just a few seasons past are now obsolete.

At times, big shifts in technology and policy irreversibly transform the market. When that change happens fast, as it often does, our human nature causes us to mourn the loss of consumer demand for what we traditionally considered to be a core strength. We saw a dramatic example of this when the world went digital and our clients moved toward doing things themselves through online means. We cried for years about that perceived loss, but once we dried our eyes enough to see clearly, we realized that in that change existed fresh opportunities. We had to transition our business models to adapt and grow in the new climate, and it wasn’t easy. But we did it. And now our mix of services has made us much more diversified, and therefore more resilient

I was listening to someone very wise speak the other day. They were addressing a situation in an organization where it seemed like a lot of progress had been made to bring the group into a new, more positive era of growth, but then leadership shifted, new programs were cut back, and the progress they had made seemed as if it had all fallen apart. They remarked that sometimes, when we take a step back, it only serves to build momentum for the next giant leap forward.

If you’ve had a setback, use it as an opportunity to build momentum for that next big step. Be stubborn and refuse to give up without a fight. Throughout history, some of the most amazing and inspirational stories, inventions, and innovations have come as a direct result of what was initially thought of as a setback. I can attest to this personally, much stronger now because of fighting through challenges that could very well have taken me down had I not been so stubborn.

If you’ve felt stuck, maybe it’s because you’re carrying too much weight. Get out of the driver’s seat for a moment and look at the situation from a new vantage point. Maybe you need to unload some unnecessary baggage, or maybe you need to rock back and forth a few times to create wiggle room and build fresh momentum to get unstuck.

If you’re struggling to adapt to changes that have come so rapidly in recent years, months, and even weeks, don’t lose faith. And don’t lose your footing. Take a breath, reevaluate, and reinvent. You’re never too old or too established to adapt.

Change is happening whether we like or not; it’s happening whether we’re ready or not. It can zip right by and leave us in the dust or it can catch us in its wings and carry us to brand new heights.


Originally published in MBC Today Volume 20, Issue 2, on March 15, 2018. Also published on the AMBC blog on September 15, 2018.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Words Are Like Weapons

My dear friends, Seema and Fahim Mojawalla of Social Media & Design Coaches LLC, shared something the other day that I want to share with you. This is an important message ... and one that I often find myself in need of.

Please check out the original post here and be sure to follow my friends' blog while you're there. Every week they share something great!


Words Are Like Weapons - Choose Yours Carefully

Our son is beginning an internship with a company that sells one of the best knives in the world. They're made here in the USA and in the hands of a professional chef, these knives can slice and dice and create magical concoctions of extraordinary food from ordinary recipes. In the hands of someone who doesn't know how to use the knife however, these knives could cut fingers and toes while trying to cut potatoes or meat.

Similarly, the words that we use in speaking to people everyday make a great deal of difference. If we just think about how the following statements cause pleasure in the first sense and pain in the second sense, we will easily understand that there are two ways to say the same thing, and we should always try to choose that way that gets our point across, without sacrificing respect or kindness.

The first sentence looks like this:

"Look at these amazing young people here."

The second sentence states this:

"Look at these pathetic troublemakers here."

In the first instance, the listeners would more likely be responsive and take action to the person speaking, as well as be more positive and uplifted. In the second instance however, the listeners would be put on guard from the very beginning and would have a negative feedback of the person speaking.

In the world of business, especially when we are placed in a role of employers, managers or leaders, we have a responsibility to use our words wisely.
If in fact we use our words to inspire, motivate, uplift and rejuvenate, we can create a very happy workplace with an extremely efficient workforce, one that is willing to lend a hand in any task and is willing to work together.

Most times, however, we find upper management using derogatory language to their subordinates and as a result, they create friction from the very beginning, causing chaos in the workplace. It starts with the words that are used when speaking to people everyday.

So, this week, we urge you to reflect on your language and your word usage. Just think to yourself, "How would I feel if I was told the same thing in the same manner with the same words that I just used to tell him or her?"

If the answer is positive, then by all means, go ahead and give those instructions in that manner. If, however, the answer causes an uncomfortable feeling, then modify the words into a more positive sentence and notice the difference immediately.

Wishing you much success.

With effervescence and gratitude,

Fahim & Seema Mojawalla
Social Media & Design Coaches
#FahimFix #SeemaSays

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Six Beautiful Words, Five Years Ago

Five years ago, six words changed my life. It was Good Friday, March 29, 2013, and I was on the phone with Lacey, one of my favorite nurses on my oncology team, anxiously awaiting the results of my post-chemo PET/CT scan. She read the results to me, joyfully proclaiming that the scan showed "complete resolution and response to chemotherapy." And as she said those six beautiful words I felt a giant burden lift off of my shouldersrealizing in that moment that I had officially become a cancer survivor.

Five months before that, I had gone to see my primary care provider for a sore throat and a swollen tonsil. My tonsil was starting to get big, visibly protruding out of the side of my throat; it was super weird. My primary had never seen anything quite like it before, and neither had some of his associates—an instructor and student who were in his office observing that day. They were all curious, and one of the associates exclaimed after looking at my rogue tonsil, "That's quite impressive!"

My primary wondered if perhaps it was a virus or something causing my tonsil to react and swell, so he swabbed and tested everything he could but the results all came back negative. By my follow-up visit eight days later, my tonsil had grown about 25% larger. We thought that clearly there must be an abscess that was causing it to grow so big, so fast, becoming so large by that point that it was blocking a good portion of the left side of my throat and affecting the sound of my voice. It was very concerning, so my primary wasted no time and got me a same-day appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT, or otolaryngologist … for short).

I went directly from my primary's office to the ENT's where I was told very coarsely, "That's not an abscess. It's a growth." Just like that, I learned that I had a tumor. My breath left me, but the doctor didn’t seem to realize that he just told me that I likely had cancer. He just plugged forward, business as usual, scheduled a tonsillectomy for a few weeks out, and ordered X-rays to be done right away.

In a daze, I made my way to my car in the parking lot of the ENT's office and just sat there—wondering, worrying, crying, and trying to catch my breath. Then my primary called. We had joked that morning in our worst Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions that "It's not a tumor." But now we both knew that indeed it was, and we both knew what that meant. He consoled me and reassured me—as a physician and a friend—that we'd get the best people on this right away; that I was strong and able to fight this.

When the X-ray results came back a few days later, the ENT I had first seen was away, so his partner looked at my file and decided that he wanted to do a biopsy of the tonsil instead of a tonsillectomy. So, on Halloween, I found myself back at the ENT's office while the new doctor examined me, prepped me for a biopsy, and accidentally sprayed lidocaine all over my face before getting it down my throat where it was intended—serving as a much-needed mood lightener, even if my face went a bit numb. Then he used a steel tool to take a chunk out of my tonsil. I can still hear the crunching sound that tool made as it clamped down in my throat. That biopsy confirmed that I had cancer.

My first of many PET/CT scans happened next, followed right away by an appointment with the best oncologist in the area, whom my primary made sure I got in with. On my very first visit, my oncologist performed a bone marrow biopsy and I learned that I have some of the strongest bones he’s ever encountered, having to put his entire weight into the tool he used to dig into my rear pelvis, through the bone, and withdraw a piece of marrow to determine if cancer had spread there yet. It hadn't, but I did have other tumors that were starting in other lymph nodes.

The type of cancer I had was a very rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, so I was sent right away to Boston to consult with one of the top rare lymphoma specialists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. That specialist clarified my diagnosis and told me that the type of cancer I had was one of the fastest growing cancers that they know about. He recommended a very intense chemo regimen, feeling I could handle it since at 33 I was still young and strong. But he also told me that if it had been just a few more weeks my chances of survival would have gone down to only 20-30%. Early detection saved me, and I consider it nothing short of a miracle that the first tumor appeared in my tonsil where I could see it and not in a lymph node that might have gone undetected until it was too late. This specialist would consult with my local oncologist and act as a guide, which meant that I could receive treatment in my home city and not have to stay in Boston. That was a relief.

Chemo was indeed intense. I spent the next four months in treatment, mostly inpatient with one- to two-week stays in the hospital during each cycle. I had a port implanted in my chest to make administering intravenous chemo easier. I often had chemo going around the clock, along with constant saline in my IV, which meant that I constantly had to pee. I had to take rescue medication after some of the strongest chemo rotations in order to bring my body back from the brink that those drugs intentionally drove me to. I received multiple intrathecal injections in my spine, fascinated each time while I watched the live X-ray in the operating room guide the surgeon's ridiculously large needle through my vertebrae and into my spinal cord. Of course, the operating room staff also said I was notorious for singing obnoxiously loud along with the radio as I got high on anesthesia while they prepped me for those injections, so I really can’t trust my memory of what happened during those intrathecal sessions 100%.

I lost every single hair on my head and my body. When I threw up, it was painful because my mouth and throat were often coated with sores, as is quite common for chemo patients. I received a slew of blood and platelet transfusions along with countless shots to help my body make more of its own blood cells to replace the ones being killed by chemo. Every bone in my body ached because of those injections as my bone marrow worked overtime to replace missing cells. When my red blood cell count was low, leaving my system without its trusty oxygen carriers, my breath got heavy and fast—my lungs panting as they did all they could to bring more oxygen to my bloodstream. My skin lost color, crawled, itched, flaked, and ached. (Yes, my skin ached.) I lost muscle tone. I sometimes lost my balance. I often lost my patience. And I lost nearly 50 pounds.

My family and friends rallied. My mom took over daily duties at my year-old business. My dad bought me groceries and drove me to and from appointments. I didn't see too many people, often having to keep myself isolated to prevent catching anything while my system was down, but my parents and best friend came to the hospital whenever they could. My sister, who was living in Texas, came home for a month to be with me. On good days, we'd play cards in the hospital, and on bad days she'd just be there if I needed her. I talked her out of shaving her head for me, though must admit I was incredibly touched when a good friend and his son surprised me by shaving theirs. I received so many cards and care packages, each one meaning the world to me. My mom crocheted me a bunch of hats, as did a dear client of mine, and I wore them proudly.

Sometimes I wanted visitors, but often I just wanted space. I worked as much as I could, accessing my business computers remotely from my laptop on the hospital bed, and because sleep is tough in a hospital when you have to pee every hour on the hour and have nurses constantly changing your IV, I slept in small stints and caught up on my Hulu and Netflix queues when sleep was impossible. I kept an online journal so those interested could know some of what was going on, even if the more gruesome details were never shared. I brought my own pillows and blankets with me for my stays, much to the amusement of the hospital staff, and had a different loungewear outfit each day—not about to don a breezy hospital gown if I didn't have to.

On days when I had an appetite and felt like I could keep food down, I'd devour as much lemon meringue pie as the cafeteria would send up. I became known to the cafeteria staff as that persnickety guy on the 5th floor who refused to eat from hospital plates and flatware, instead requesting everything be sent up with disposable dishware because just one whiff of or glance at the not-sure-where-they've-been hospital dishes was an instant nausea trigger. And the sweet older foodservice man that often brought my meals never could get my name right. To him, I was Marian.

The oncology team that worked with me, including the staff on the hospital floor where I spent most of those treatment months, was tremendous. I still get hugs when I visit, exchange Christmas cards, and continue to fail to be able to express my gratitude as much as I owe to them. They saved my life.

That battle is over, but the vigil will continue the rest of my days. Over the last five years of follow-up, I've amassed quite a team of doctors, gaining new specialists each time something looks or feels a little funny. I've had biopsies on everything from my bladder to my kidney and scopes shoved up places I didn't even know scopes could go. Eventually, after it was all said and done, I did have that tonsillectomy. My port finally came out after a year, and the scars it left on my chest and neck are ones I wear proudly. My damaged teeth got restored—whitened and filled or filed and crowned—so I can smile as big as I want to now. And yes, I still get incredibly anxious every time I think I may be getting a sore throat.

Oh, it's been an interesting ride. Someday I’m going to write a book about it. But on this day, March 29th, I will always think back to those six beautiful words Lacey read to me in 2013: "complete resolution and response to chemotherapy." And I'll well up, overwhelmed afresh with thankfulness.

#CancerSurvivor #FiveYearsCancerFree #LymphomaSucks #Grateful #Thankful


Public Service Announcement:

Everyone's diagnosis and treatment experience is different. Variables like cancer type, sub-type, stage, overall health, treatment plan, healthcare access, doctor knowledge, age, aptitude, attitude, desire, genetics, insurance, and so much more go into determining what a patient will go through, symptoms they will have, and steps they will take. 

I state this to help the public understand that saying things like, "Oh, I know someone who had that!" or "Yes, my friend went through the exact same thing." or "Well, that type of cancer isn't that bad." is inappropriate most likely untrue. Please don't compare. Just show compassion.

#SoapBox #ItsImportantThough