A group had asked me to talk for hundreds of people—to share my ongoing experience with cancer. “Just say something uplifting like your articles. We all need something good to focus on right now.” This hit me as ironic. It seemed strange they’d ask someone who’s still fighting cancer not someone who’s already overcome it. But I found something powerful in that anyway, and I wrote a speech about not taking our lives for granted—no matter what our quality of life might be. There’s so much power in setting our roots in gratitude. And I honestly felt really prepared until the host said my name and asked me to come onto the stage.
That’s the thing about public speaking. For me, it always seems easier when you’re under the lights. It’s hard to see actual faces out there, and—while staring out into the lights and the darkness under them—I like to pretend I’m just talking to God and He’s actually listening. It’s what they call “an audience of one.” But at this event there weren’t spotlights, and that meant I could see the multitude of faces in front of me, and that’s when I froze.
I grabbed the mic and sat on the chair the event coordinator had set out for me. I’d told him I can’t stand long because of my weak right leg and the pain in my back.
And so I just waited there, breathing into the damn microphone. And then, hoping someone—anyone—would help me, I heard a memory from the past. A woman I look up to very much once told me that if you have to speak anywhere, pick three faces from the crowd and talk to them. I heard her kind words, “There’s nothing to it,” she said. And I figured if Donna thought I could do it, I’d be all right.
So I found three faces. One, the man in the suit coat in the front row. Two, the elderly lady closer to the back on the right. And three, the highschool-age kid would looked forlorn and out of place in the crowd.
“We all have problems,” I said. “Mine just happens to be easier to define. I have terminal cancer. But most of us have something we’re going through. It could be marital problems, troubles at work, or maybe even a parent who has terminal cancer.” At this, I looked at the teenage kid, and I knew something I’d said had reached him.
The speech came easy then, and it changed from gratitude to seizing the day.
And then I talked about what I’m going through as a mom and how hard I’m fighting to shield my kids from how sick I can get. “The doctors said I might have up to eight years—maybe even longer if they can make more advances with melanoma treatments. The point is that I don’t know.” I looked out at the teenage kid and realized he’d begun crying. “But none of us know,” I said. And then I told a story about a man who’d been praying for me; I’d been shocked to hear he died that following Wednesday in a freak accident. “I wish I would’ve been praying for him,” I said.
“Whatever you take from today, whatever it is, I hope it’s to appreciate your life. Don’t hold off on doing things—like I did. Do what you want now, while you have time and you’re healthy. And if you’re dealing with someone who’s sick like I am, tell them how much you care. Don’t let it wait until tomorrow. Spend your time wisely. If you knew you had a year left, a week, a day… What would you do with your time? Really think about it. What would you do in that single day?”
The boy left crying. And at the end of the speech several people came up and told me they’d never forget my words or my message.
“Mike,” I said. “I’m so worried that I was too harsh. I made a kid cry.”
“Maybe you said exactly what he needed to hear.”
And I thought if I’d said something that impacted just one person, it made all of the stage fright and fear worth it.
I’ve been thinking about this because recently our family knew two people who committed suicide: one right after getting diagnosed with cancer. It’s so hard for me to describe in words what I’m feeling, but if I’d given up during my first diagnosis in 2018–or the diagnosis of stage four in 2020–I would’ve missed out on so much. It’s crazy to think that despite pain, fatigue, and hardships, some of the best memories have come AFTER my diagnosis. That’s because living with intentional gratitude will change your life. I know it’s changed mine. I just wish people would realize that yes life is hard, but you never know what miracle is right around the corner. There’s so much good just around the bend. That’s why so many people say life is a rollercoaster. Up and down. Down and up.
Anyway whatever that teenage kid in the audience is going through, I hope some of my words helped him somehow. I guess we never know how we might impact someone else. I just hope my impact was good.