My three minutes of podium time was preceded with an introduction by CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. His introduction was about the power of story, and specifically my expertise on the subject. He didn’t just do research on me. He admitted to me that he was aware of my work years ago. I was surprised to say the least. More importantly, I had to deliver the goods!
There is no better way to engage the audience and be memorable than with a story. How? Create a visual image, evoke emotion and impart wisdom. Is it possible in a mere 3 minutes? You tell me.
Below is my speech at the THANC (Thyroid Head and Neck Cancer) Annual Fundraising event at which I was honored for my work to raise awareness about oral cancer:
A late stage diagnosis of oral cancer can rob you of a humane life. Dr. Urken preserved my quality-of-life allowing me to enjoy the ability to speak articulately, eat normally and smile unabashedly. It’s what humans live for and often take for granted.
Just before I was discharged from Mt Sinai, the cast on my arm was removed and I saw a long curving row of black stitches which was where the artery was taken from my arm to feed blood from my carotid to the graft site in my tongue. I saw a deep red hollowed area where my wrist tissue was transplanted to my tongue. I turned away in disgust. But I knew it was me; I knew I had to own it. When I looked again, I saw a curving string attached to a red balloon. I vowed I would take hold of that red balloon because it could only take me upwards, the only direction I could go from where I’d been.
After surgery, everyday I felt a little better, and when you are feeling better there’s hope. When there is hope, you can go on. Radiation was different. Everyday I felt ‘it can’t get worse than this.’ But it did. One night, I reached that deep dark place where I made a decision. I gave treatment my best, I just couldn’t go on. That night, I wrote a note to my husband about where I wanted to be buried and a letter to my children about my dreams and wishes for them, my pride and joy in them, my values that I hoped would live on.
The following day, I felt it was only fair to tell my radiation oncologist face-to-face about my decision. We sat down in his office and he said, “Eva, radiation to the head and neck is the most difficult area on the entire body to tolerate treatment. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
In my hoarse whisper, I said ‘I’m quitting.’
He stood up, put his hands on his desk, leaned close to me and I’ll never forget his words: “Don’t tell me you are quitting. This isn’t a game you quit. It’s your life. Find the strength.”
The last two weeks of radiation were a blur of pain. Crying made my symptoms unbearable. I learned fast to control the tears. I fought ugly thoughts with pretty ones. I replaced unhappy endings with happy ones. I dreamed about my future. I watched and read anything that would make me laugh. Laughing was medicine, even if it was only for a moment! It amazed me that feeling as rock bottom as I did, I could still laugh at a joke.
It is human nature to lament your losses and a true human skill to recognize your gifts. Throughout my ordeal with oral cancer, I never lost the ability to make a choice. When we choose to face our life challenges with strength, we turn adversity into opportunity; an opportunity to leave a legacy of choosing gratitude, choosing courage, choosing moments to cherish. The virtues we choose to embody, have a rippling effect, inspiring all those who know us, and through them, together we can inspire countless others.
When I was walking the tightrope, balancing between life and death, I thought good and hard about how I would be remembered. We are remembered for how we make a difference in other people’s lives. Thank you Dr. Urken, the THANC Foundation and all of YOU for truly making a difference in the lives of head and neck cancer survivors.
Afterwards, I went over to Chris and told him that it was one of the best introductions I ever received. Chris, if you are reading this, please paste your intro. I’d like to save for posterity. It made my day when he told me, “Eva, you delivered the goods.”