The Day I Learned I Had Cancer was the Day I Learned about Focus.

July 20th. 7:50 am.  I was ready to deliver a keynote to a client. The start time was 8 am and I was standing at the doorway greeting people as I always do and getting geared up to be introduced and go onstage. I LOVE doing what I do and am very blessed to have the career that I do. The owner of the company walked in and he sat down and we made eye contact, I smiled and I said “I’m ready to go”. I always get a rush of adrenaline right before a keynote and felt the tap opening. I was ready.

7:53 am. My phone lit up with a call and the number indicated to me that it was my doctor. I never ever have the phone on at this point, and this day I was waiting for that call. I picked up the phone and whispered to the owner that “I needed to take this call and I would be right back”. He nodded and I left the room. I said “hello” and my long time primary care doctor told me right way that he had the results of a biopsy that he had done a week earlier. “It’s cancer. There is evidence of tumor in one of the samples we took and this is what you will do.” He proceeded to tell me that I would need to get an MRI, a bone scan and then see a surgeon. He never said ” I’m sorry” which in retrospect was helpful in the moment. I asked a few questions, looked at my watch and knew I had to deliver. I thanked him for calling and said I would call back in the afternoon. I took a deep breath and walked in the room at 8 am sharp.  I had to get super focused and I had no choice.  I could not walk out on my client and needed to deliver. No choice.

I did it. I delivered that 2 hour keynote with the same energy and vigor that my client expected. Something just clicked into place and I rocked it. When we were done, I left the stage, went to call my wife and exhaled for the first time in 2 hours.

Then reality hit me. Hard. I have cancer. I also allowed myself to cry, which I did.

As I have reflected on this day every single day over the last four months, I have thought a great deal about focus and the power of individual will. I have always had a fear of getting cancer or any other disease for that matter. Who doesn’t? Ever since my father died of a brain tumor at 57, DADI have always been especially sensitive to this. Terrified in fact.  I have never hid that fact and have tried to do things like donating, volunteering to silently ward off the possibility.

So what did I learn that day?  Enough to make a huge difference in my life and maybe yours.

1.  We all have a deep reserve of strength that is there when we need it. That strength is a reservoir that has a potency and viability to it that is breathtaking. We can summon that strength when we need it and it is there in unending supply. It’s yours and you can call it up anytime you need and as often as you need. Trust that it is there and don’t give into voices in your head that it’s not.

2.  Get to the lowest common denominator-FAST. I quickly calculated that my cancer (prostate) was not going to kill me. I was not going to die from it. I knew I was in good hands and that in two hours I would still be in the same position I was in and nothing would have changed. The cancer would not have spread in that time. In fact I said silently “screw cancer” and that made me smile and focus. ( I actually used another word which I probably should not use here….)

3.  Focus is innate. I had no choice but to deliver.  I compartmentalized the issue for a few hours and showed myself that I could get the job done and I had the ability to not give in. That allowed me to create the focus I need to do what I needed to do. I chose not to feel sorry for myself in that moment.

4. Pragmatism takes over. I had a job to do and my reputation depended on what I did in that moment. I am sure that if I walked in and said to the client that I had just received bad news and had I leave, they would have understood. It would have been survivable and we would have been ok. When I got to the aforementioned “lowest common denominator”, that is what allowed me to be pragmatic and carry on.

5.  Fear is transformative. I never knew this. I was scared and I just could not let fear overtake me in that moment. I managed to use that fear to channel my focus and do the keynote.   That connection was a surprise to me and totally unexpected and very welcome.

6.  I’m not special. I don’t believe that what happened is unique to me. I am a firm believer that if any of us were in my position the same things would occur. To an extent it is a choice.

7.  BREATHE. The focus I summoned was in no small part because after I hung up the phone with the doctor, I stood still, closed my eyes and took three deep cleansing breaths.  Learn to breathe and learn how to get present in the moment.  That leads to concrete focus. Everything happens very fast and this means you must be able to focus. That focus that I had in that seven minutes was almost magical and just appeared.

8.  Fear of abandonment is normal. When anyone receives a diagnosis like this, it’s totally normal to get frightened that your friends, colleagues and clients will disappear. Every gets scared when they hear this and it hits close to home. What helped me was that the opposite was true. My friends rallied, and my clients were amazing. I have not lost a single engagement and am booking well into next year. I am also deeply thankful my clients who stood by me that stressful day and have been a terrific source of positive energy to me. The very fact that I was not abandoned fueled my focus and resolve to get past his and get back to what I love. My Virtual Team stood by and stood strong and I am forever in their debt. I am also forever grateful to my fellow speakers whose club I now was a member of.  They provocatively reached put to me and were there.

Fast forward – I had my surgery on November 16th and it was a complete success. The pathology reports were all excellent and I am on the road to a full recovery. The cancer is gone. It was the best Thanksgiving ever. In some ways I am grateful that this happened because I learned that I have the strength and will to focus when I need to.  I also learned that I am not a victim. Being a victim is a choice and I refuse. The ability to focus in adversity exists in all of us. Don’t be afraid to use your supply when you need it. I am not selling “easy” here nor am I trivializing anyone’s individual experience. We will all react differently and I think my experience is in everyone’s reach.

In the coming months I will be writing more about the entire experience including how its ties so well to my topic of sales culture, and how that helped me get through this. Stay tuned.

Thanks for listening. Thank you for being there.

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Todd Cohen, CSP is an accomplished and sought after international keynote speaker, sales culture expert and author of “Everyone’s in Sales” and “Everyone’s in Sales; STOP Apologizing.”

Todd’s dynamic and motivational keynotes and workshops are based on the foundation that regardless of career path or position, everyone is a salesperson. Since 1984, Todd has led sales teams to deliver more than $950 million in revenue for leading companies including Xerox and Thomson-Reuters.

You can also see Todd’s articles on Sales Culture in many magazines, trade journals and the Huffington Post.  

For more information or to book Todd Cohen for your next meeting please visit

Follow Todd on Twitter @SalesLeaderTodd.

7 thoughts on “The Day I Learned I Had Cancer was the Day I Learned about Focus.”

  1. Todd – Thank you for sharing one of your very most personal experiences. I am inspired by your story, strength and resolve. Knowing the type of person you are I’m not at all surprised you crushed that 2-hour keynote! Happy Holidays to you and your family and look forward to hopefully catching up in the New Year.

  2. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was prevalent in the women in my family (Great Grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, 3 aunts and a cousin) so it was almost expected. However, because of this knowledge I started screening at an early age and the cancer was found in stage 1. My initial reaction? At least now I know and can do what I have to do. Then I took my husband shopping for new clothes (for him, not me). After surgery and radiation, I am now 6 years cancer free. When I passed the magic 5 year “survivor” milestone I took myself clothes shopping.
    Genetic testing so far has revealed no abnormalities, so this was just the luck of the draw. There don’t appear to be any additional cases in our family so if there were genetic reasons, we seem to have repaired them naturally.
    During my treatment and recover, I too had incredible support from my friends, family and my work family. I had only been on the job about a year when I was diagnosed, but my company gave me all the time I needed without any reduction in pay (and I’m still with them and still love it here). I barely missed a step, working half days while undergoing radiation. The logistics and support made this easy for me.
    Like you, I choose to see the glass as half full. I can find a positive bent to just about any situation – which drives my husband nuts sometimes. I donate to causes that are important to me and do what I can to stay healthy. I love my life, my job, my family and my friends.
    And I thank you for sharing your story. I wish everyone could and would have the screening they need to detect, treat and beat cancer.
    I also wish for you and your family a Safe, Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

  3. Todd,
    Thanks for sharing your story! I’m happy you are ok and are moving forward into 2017.
    Have a wonderful Holiday Season !
    Take Care,

  4. You wrote that you are not unique, and that’s true, but you are most definitely special. Having been through cancer myself and my husband having been through the same as you, we can both relate completely to everything you have written, and we have been touched and inspired by it. But this isn’t really about cancer, as you have made so clear. It’s about the about friendship, about fear and hope and resilience and the immeasurable beauty of human beings….like you.
    Saying thank you for sharing your self and your experience with us sounds so inadequate, but I will say it all the same: A heartfelt, heart-full, thank you.
    Wishing you a healthy, peaceful and wonderful new year!
    Love, Colleen

  5. Wow. That brought back some very scary feelings. I got my call in 2012. Your items 1-5 are spot on and I experienced them all in real time. But I was too scared for my wife and child to even think about items 6-8. Beautifully written and thoughtful piece, Todd. Thanks for posting this.


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