This week’s blog post is about the importance of advocating for yourself and others whom you love, especially when it comes to health and well-being. Adopt the mantra, “the fierce urgency of now,” inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., excerpt from”Beyond Vietnam” speech, 1967
Most people are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech,”I Have a Dream,” given on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. It was a defining moment in the civil rights movement in which he called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the United States. This speech plus his tireless efforts and the countless hours of tens of thousands of volunteers eventually led to the ratification of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which legally ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Dr. King’s speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century in a 1999 poll of scholars of public address. I think it will go down as one of the most important speeches in human history. But I love his speech for another reason. It’s a wake-up for action and for living with purpose. He speaks of “the fierce urgency of now.”
Note: You can read the entire speech and listen to an audio of his live delivery of “I Have a Dream” at the The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. The phrase “the fierce urgency of now” is first mentioned in paragraph seven (audio file time code minutes 4:00-4:35).
Three and a half years later, Dr. King spoke again of the fierce urgency of now. Here’s an excerpt from his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967:
A Mantra to Live By
When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011, I came to understand the importance of living by Dr. King’s words. With an uncertainty of tomorrow, I had to get on with the business of living now. Surviving cancer made me recommit to my responsibility and privilege of positively contributing to as many people as possible. There was no more excuse for waiting or procrastinating. I had to put my work out there without hesitation or worry that it wasn’t good enough. Heck, I could be dead soon. What was I waiting for?
While that may sound morbid to you, it was quite liberating to me. It created a sense of urgency for living, giving, and contribution now, while I was still alive. That’s when I started on my aggressive writing schedule, leading to publishing a book a year.
That’s when I recommitted to volunteer leadership, joining organizations like Soroptimist International of the Americas, and Rotary International.
That’s when I decided that I didn’t need to “take over the world,”(as I often phrase it) to be happy. I could be happy with making a difference on the lives of individuals that I came into contact with in my family, neighborhood, community, workplace, even strangers that I met online.
I found myself less frequently asking the questions, “What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t measure up? Maybe I’m not ready?” I just started going for it. Living, giving, contributing, with a fierce urgency of now.
This was the best gift that cancer could have given me: a new outlook on life.
A Mantra to Act By
Just recently, I have had the unfortunate opportunity to revisit this motivating mantra: The Fierce Urgency of Now! This time, it became a mantra for action and advocacy. You see my husband Byron was unexpectedly diagnosed with melanoma. The mark appeared on his face. It looked like an age spot, so we didn’t think anything of it. He had an appointment with a dermatologist but because he was a new patient, he had to wait six months for his appointment. As his wife, there were several conversations about how we could expedite this, including trading my early appointment for him. But we waited our turn.
By the time he finally got to the dermatologist, the mark on his face had developed a hard, lumpy feel to it. This was not a good sign. The dermatologist made the decision to do a biopsy to check it out. That turned out to be a very good call, because the biopsy results came back with the horrible headline of cancer – melanoma. A referral to an ENT specialist (ears/nose/throat) was made.
Mind you, I am now in the role of caregiver / spouse. This time it’s not me with the problem, but me supporting the loved one with the crisis. I gotta tell you, it’s more different being the caregiver than the cancer patient.
When we went to our appointment with the ENT specialist it was like a whole new world. I was trying my best to ask good questions and capture the information that the doctor shared. Even though I had direct cancer experience, melanoma was very different than ovarian cancer.
“In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., excerpt from”Beyond Vietnam” speech, 1967
But what struck me most about the appointment was the doctor’s comments that they were really busy right now, scheduling wise. He couldn’t do surgery for at least a month. We were shocked. A month? This is melanoma we are talking about. Every day counts. It could have already spread to my husband’s lymph node system. The mortality tables and projections for that scenario are quite grim. Reading this information online really set off our imaginations, in all the wrong directions!
Byron kept telling the doctor that he “wanted this off my face right away.” The doctor understood, saying he would probably feel the same if it was his cancer diagnosis. “But statistically speaking, it won’t really make a difference if you do it now or in a month.” That’s when we knew that we could not work with this doctor. Where was the sense of urgency? This is a life or death situation–not to be taken lightly.
We pushed some more. We asked for referrals. We saw Byron’s general practitioner the very next day. We wanted a second opinion. I reached out to friends in the medical community asking for help. One response was quite remarkable.
Tap Into Your Network
I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Alex Garvey when he was the guest speaker at my Rotary club meeting last year. I was so impressed with his presentation that I wrote a blog about him – The Power of Speaking from the Heart.
Alex is a senior executive with Bon Secours St. Francis Health Care System in Greenville, SC. I have been fortunate to see him at a number of events and meetings. I also built rapport with his administrative assistant, Glenda Eller. I reached out to Glenda by phone after that disappointing meeting with the ENT. I asked her if she or Alex had any referrals to specialists at Bon Secours St. Francis that could help us in this time of crisis. She told me that Alex was at an offsite leadership meeting, but she would get a message to him. Within 50 minutes, Glenda emailed me back saying that she connected with Alex who was at the meeting with the head of their oncology center. Dr. Robert (Bob) Siegel, who would be contacting us the next day.
Really? Could people move that fast? Do others have the fierce urgency of now in their willingness to help others? My heart soared. My burden lifted. There was hope. There was action.
Within 4 days we were sitting in Dr. Siegel’s office (what an incredible cancer center they have!!!). At this meeting, we learned so much more. He told us what kind of melanoma tumor it was. Based on the initial biopsy results and a physical exam, he told us it was a sub-type of melanoma that was less common, and slower growing. He told us that this type of melanoma rarely spreads to the lymph system. He confirmed that the surgical plan and additional biopsies were the right course of action. And he educated us on the cancer treatment options in the event that the cancer had spread. He ended our appointment saying that we probably wouldn’t need his services. We left the center with a huge smile on our face, and the decision that if we needed to work with an oncologist, he would be the one!
The Power of Referrals
If you can’t handle the work yourself, you should refer the business to someone who can. That is how you best serve your clients. We were relieved when the original ENT surgeon referred us to one of the partners in his medical practice. This surgeon had more experience with melanoma cancer and knew the urgency required. His office called and put us on the schedule for Friday, April 12th.
The surgery went smoothly (although the procedure to prepare for the surgery and additional biopsy was pretty horrific). My parents drove up to be with us during the surgery and the day that followed. We waited anxiously for five days until we got the results of the lymph node biopsy (called a sentinel node biopsy). Miraculously, the biopsy was negative! This meant that the cancer had not spread. What a huge relief. We ran around the house just giddy, chanting, “Byron gets to live!”
Things to Remember:
- Decide what is urgent and important. Often we take for granted or ignore what is truly most important to us (like our health). It’s easy to get busy with activities and distractions and blow off what really matters to you and those you care about. Take time to ground yourself in your true priorities…before it’s too late.
- You must advocate for your own healthcare. Don’t let other people (even doctors and people of “authority”) put you on the back burner. Your health and well-being matter. If you need help advocating for yourself, find someone in your inner circle to join you at important medical appointments. Don’t be afraid to re-enact Shirley McLaine in her famous scene in the film, Terms of Endearment: Give My Daughter The Shot!!
- Wear Sunscreen. I just love listening to Baz Luhrmann’s song, Everybody’s Free. His music video is pretty cool, too. Did you know that the lyrics for this song originally came from an essay written as a hypothetical commencement speech by columnist Mary Schmich, and published in June 1997 in the Chicago Tribune? She got it right when she said, “Trust me on the sunscreen.”