It’s about focusing on the fight, not the fright.
― Robin Roberts, Anchor,
ABC’s Good Morning America
As a long-term viewer of Jeopardy!, the popular television quiz show, I was saddened when I heard news that its host Alex Trebek was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
My grief was not only centered on losing Trebek, who has hosted Jeopardy! for thirty-five years, but by the reminder that all of us have been touched in some way by the insidious disease of cancer.
I lost my mother, who raised me by herself, to pancreatic cancer many years ago. As I learned first-hand, this form of cancer is particularly swift and deadly.
These emotions were with me as I viewed Trebek’s video announcement. (You can watch at the end of this article in case you haven’t seen it.)
As a CEO communication coach, I watched Trebek’s announcement in amazement. His message is warm, personal, encouraging, even uplifting. I've worked with senior leaders on dealing with similar personal messages. It's not easy.
Trebek’s approach provides lessons for leaders and all of us on communicating difficult, especially health-related, news:
Get ahead of the story
The legendary game-show host said he was sharing the news himself. In line with the show’s "longtime policy of being open and transparent with our Jeopardy! fan base,” Trebek said, “I also wanted to prevent you from reading or hearing some overblown or inaccurate reports regarding my health. Therefore, I wanted to be the one to pass on this information.”
Trebek is right. You have the opportunity to tell your story. If you don’t, others will fill the vacuum with rumors and misinformation. Of course, you also have the right to complete privacy.
Be as transparent as feels comfortable
There was a time when cancer was the “C-word,” never mentioned publicly. People were loath to disclose that they had the disease for fear of being virtually shunned.
Thankfully, that has changed. People are more open about a diagnosis, which gives others the opportunity to give much-needed support. You should disclose as much or as little as makes you comfortable.
Tracy was a great speaker and leader in Toastmasters, where we met years earlier.
I visited him at a meeting shortly after his diagnosis.
When my friend Tracy Austin, who passed away nearly two years ago, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he decided to be completely transparent about the highs and extreme lows of his battle. As I wrote at the time:
When Tracy shared his diagnosis, he and his wife and soul mate Karen committed to being open and transparent through their journey. On Facebook, they’ve intimately shared their pain, their joy, their fears, and their love.
They challenged thousands of us to live our lives with awareness, gratitude, and love. A community of support has surrounded them, with continuous prayers, positive energy, and daily visits and support. People have worn name tags in support of Tracy. #TeamTracy
As he went through some fifteen rounds of wrenching chemo, Tracy maintained his positive attitude, thanking his doctors and nurses for their support, and supporting other patients.
You can read more of this at Tracy Austin: a Legacy of Love.
Working with senior leaders, I focus on the elements that influence peoples’ perception of your message: your words, your tone, and your attitude.
A health diagnosis is the ultimate opportunity to be authentic and share yourself.
As you will note from his video, Trebek maintains his show demeanor, which presumably is close to who he is, and even uses humor to diffuse the tension of his message for his fans.
"I plan to beat the low survival-rate statistics for this disease," he said. "Truth told, I have to! Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years!"
Let people support you
It may feel awkward asking for support, but you are doing people a favor. As human beings, it’s in our nature to offer support to others in need.
Trebek asks for support and ends on a note of hope. “Normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this, and I’m going to keep working,” he says.
Trebek cites the statistic that fifty thousand people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year, adding that, “with the love and support of my family and friends, and with the help of your prayers also, I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease... So help me. Keep the faith and we’ll win. We’ll get it done. Thank you.”
I’m keeping the faith with Alex and with everyone touched by the scourge of cancer. We are with you and look forward to the day when cancer is permanently defeated.
Click below to watch Alex's message:
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