Ted Powell: When Your Mind Works Against You at TEDxJacksonville (Transcript)

Full transcript of Ted Powell’s TEDx Talk: When Your Mind Works Against You at TEDxJacksonville conference.

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Ted Powell – Leadership consultant

This is November 2, 2004. I’m on the road, life is good, get a phone call from my wife Nancy and the mother of our three children. And as I listened to her, she says, “Bad news”. I figure the car must have broken down again. We have another expensive car repair bill. But then the words that follow after that are: “It’s cancer.”

I go, “It’s cancer.” Immediately in a numb state, I start to ask her all of these different questions, like, ‘Well, is it treatable? What’s the prognosis? What’s the plan? Where do we go from here?’ and the only thing that she can respond by saying is, “I don’t know.” I figure I better shut up for now. Surely the answers I need will come next week when we go to the doctors.

That evening I go out to Barnes & Noble and I buy every single breast cancer book that I can get my hands on. I become hell bent on becoming a breast cancer expert. I spent every waking and non-working moment reading, reading, reading.

The next week arrives. We go to the oncologist office. We’re looking at the biopsy results and they are not good. Tumor cancers are labeled according to a number of different characteristics that are either labels being favorable or unfavorable. HER2/neu Positive, estrogen receptor negative, premenopausal under the age of 50 — those are all unfavorable characteristics. And Nancy’s tumor possesses them all.

I remember at one point when we were sitting in the oncologist office, she just looks at the results and she just says, ‘bad, bad, bad, bad, I hate that’. My research and analysis intensifies. I’m doing more reading. I’m doing research on the Internet. I developed this strange sense of pride that I’m becoming a breast cancer expert. When people ask me, “Dad, how you doing?” I start to rattle off everything that I know about the tumor, everything that I know about the disease, telling them that it is a nasty tumor, it is aggressive, it’s likely to spread but we really won’t know anything until we get the lymph node biopsy in a couple of weeks.

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Meanwhile week later, we’re sitting in Dr. Carlos Castillo office, that’s Nancy’s primary oncologist. And I came to that armed with my list of questions, surely figuring that he is going to give me the answers that I need. So I start to rattle off the questions. ‘Tell me about this new drug Herceptin? I understand its breakthrough. You know, I know that it’s not good that she’s under the age of 50 but does it matter if she’s close to 50? This five year survival rate, it’s confusing me, what does that mean? Is that with treatment or without treatment? And if it’s with treatment, what does that mean and what treatment are we talking about?

He listens to me patiently and in that moment he puts his hands up. And he says, “Ted, I’m going to stop you here.”

And I said, “What?”

He goes, let me ask you a question: “How many times have you asked these questions or sought the answers to them?” A lot. “Are you getting any new and different information in your quest?” Not really.

He says, “Then I have one-word of advice for you and that is for you to focus your attention on getting closer to God. And if you do that, then everything will be OK.” In that moment I realized that he was not delivering a faith-healer’s promise. He was in no way assuring me that Nancy was going to live. What he was doing was he was telling me to get out of my head and to venture into the scary place of not knowing. He was telling me to live in my strength, whether I call that God, spirit, courage or something else. So I started to reflect on that. And I started to reflect on the absentee father and husband that I had been the weeks leading up to that meeting with Dr. Carlos Castillo, how I have been going through the motions of caring for Nancy and thinking that caring came in the form of doing everything that I could to research so that I could fix this particular situation. But in the meantime I was really overwhelmed with my own fear and my own distress. I know that Nancy and the kids missed me.

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So I go home, I throw away all the books, I pray when I need to pray, I cry when I need to cry and I let go of the need to know. Dr. Castillo tells me and he told me later on that the number one challenge that he has as an oncologist is getting people to let go of the need to know — getting people to let go of control over something which they have very little or no control over.

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