My Dance with Cancer

How the big “C” made me a better businessman.
John J. Schalter is a private attorney, a life coach, a screenplay writer, a radio host, and an author. Photograph by Carrie Hall

It was a beautiful summer day in the early evening. My wife, Carrie, and I were on our way to a funeral home to pay our respects to a friend’s mother. As I drove, my cell phone buzzed.

I looked down to see it was a call from Beaumont Hospital. My stomach churned as I looked at Carrie and slowly announced, “I bet the test came back.” I thought to myself, “No one calls this late in the day with good news.”

Then I caught myself and an inner voice asked: “Isn’t this an opportunity for you to practice what you preach?”

In any case, I could detect from my doctor’s voice that it was a call she didn’t want to make, with information I didn’t want to know. After some small talk, I cut to the chase: “It’s cancer, isn’t it?”

She sounded relieved. “I’m so sorry. I …” But I was in no mood for hand-holding. “What’s next?” She answered quickly. “We’ll roundtable this at the hospital with your other doctors and come up with a game plan.”

I ended the call with as much gratitude and respect as I could muster, and continued to the funeral home. As I reflected on the call, I was happy to have a team and to know there would be a plan for this new world I was suddenly dragged into.

I’ve named this short conversation with my doctor my “mirror call” before my “miracle.” It was, indeed, a wake-up call; I was face-to-face with what Michael Jackson called the “Man in the Mirror.”

After all, I was a lawyer, a performance/life coach, and a businessman/entrepreneur. This was my time to shine, walk the walk, talk the talk, and take the road less traveled in my life.

What I learned is that facing cancer is similar to any business challenge I had dealt with in my professional career. The stakes were higher, yet the process was the same.

After conducting research, I surrounded myself with a team of the very best doctors I could find. They served as my board of directors and offered a variety of opinions on my path to recovery.

I chose an integrated approach by combining traditional medicine with the recommendations of a naturopathic expert as it concerned vitamins and nutrition. I developed relationships (a kind of business partnership) with each of my doctors and nurses, so I could get the extra effort and attention that would make a difference.

This was my time to shine, walk the walk, talk the talk, and take the road less traveled in my life.

I wanted a locker room and office culture that would best create peak performances. It seemed I had tapped into an inner voice that told me what to do, and how to do it.

After being cancer-free for more than a year, I believe the entire experience was a gift. It’s an experience that has made me a better businessman, as I now view all my goals with renewed intensity and faith. In its own way, cancer was a teacher.

It raised the bar for what I can expect out of myself, and what I should expect of others. My career is now infected with a deep sense of gratitude and joy; business decisions can and should be fun. I once hired an acting teacher to help develop my courtroom skills and she would always remind me, “Let yourself laugh!” Oddly, enough laughter makes almost everything better. Just think of how the quality of your life would improve if you let 10 percent more joy and laughter into your business.

In business, as in life, adversity can be our best teacher. One thing I’ve learned is that a great businessman is always comfortable in his own skin. I love this quote from Steve Jobs: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Yes, life and business are filled with obstacles. But in our heart of hearts, we wouldn’t have it any other way. One of my first jobs out of college was teaching high school classes and coaching track. I always loved the high hurdles. The event required so many skills — speed, agility, and strength — as well as grace and elegance. There’s no time to think. Sometimes you pound your heel into the top of a hurdle and lose your balance. Sometimes you fall. Even so, you get up and keep moving forward, realizing recovery is part of the exquisite beauty of the race. It’s the rocket fuel for a life worth living.

Business can be fun. Take time to let yourself laugh. Find your inner voice and have the courage to listen.