Leadership and Life Challenges
By: Jeanette M. Acosta
Jeanette M. Acosta, a Tony Patiño Fellow from UC Hastings’ class of 2016, delivered a keynote speech at Selection Day on August 19, 2017. Sadly, Jeanette passed away in December of the same year. Her extraordinary and inspiring remarks are below.
Jeanette also inspired UC Hastings to create a Memorial Scholarship in her honor.
Good evening, everyone. First, I want to begin by pausing and taking a moment of silence in memory and in honor of the innocent lives lost at the hands of hatred over the past several days here at home in Charlottesville and abroad in Barcelona.
We are most certainly living in a time where we each need to reflect on the Tony Patiño Fellowship’s aspiration of being a leader of mankind in all that is honorable, just and compassionate and we must work even harder toward achieving this.
This time last year, I stood before you expressing my gratitude for the support, guidance and encouragement that I was given as a Fellow-Elect at Hastings. Now, I stand before you a year later to again express my gratitude to the members of the Board and my broader Patino Fellowship community but this time as a Fellow fighting cancer.
In the invitation to speak this evening, I was invited to address the theme of leadership and life challenges. The challenge that I will focus on is illness. In my case, Stage 4-A cervical cancer.
On December 23, 2016, a few months into my judicial clerkship, I was diagnosed with this cancer. On that day, my life flipped upside down. After being diagnosed, I began to walk up a long, bumpy, or since we are in San Francisco, hilly road filled with aggressive treatments that has included 3 surgeries, 6 rounds of chemotherapy, 28 rounds of external radiation and 5 rounds of internal radiation, which required me to be completely immobilized in a hospital bed for 3 long days.
All of these treatments comprised what’s called “first line” treatment. Unfortunately, due to new bone lesions discovered a couple weeks ago, I am at a new fork in the road where I must embark on additional systemic treatment, or second line treatment.
So, the challenge is clear. But the practice of leadership in the face of this challenge is less clear.
How does one lead in the face of a cancer? What can leadership look like in the context of a life-threatening illness?
When you think of leadership, you likely think of an individual or a small team organizing and directing a larger group toward meeting a shared goal or goals in the context of a company or organization.
In my experience over the past 9 months facing countless unknowns and invasive treatments and reflecting on the writings of Ekhart Tolle, Marianne Williamson and Ron Heifetz, I offer up to you what I think the practice of leadership calls for in this unique health context. Specifically,
- Leadership calls for purpose – having a clear sense of purpose.
- Leadership calls for presence – being fully present, fully accepting what is happening and being willing to adapt.
- And most importantly, leadership calls for partnership – engaging and trusting others in your effort.
During the past several months, I largely was relying on default habits of interpreting and responding to events. I found myself drawing regularly from my well of resilience, hope, faith, courage and determination.
But until more recently, I had not taken the time to fully reflect on what had been happening and why I behaved in certain ways.
Now, that I am at the juncture of determining the next treatment, I have realized how essential it is to be clear on my purpose and communicate this purpose to others, particularly medical professionals.
My purpose in seeking treatment is to heal completely. I am not interested in anything short of that. This purpose is rooted in love. I value my life, I love who I am becoming, I love my family, and I love what I want to still do in life. Being clear on your purpose when faced with a major health challenge will empower you as the patient and enable you and your loved ones to be your best advocate and seek out the best possible care. This past Wednesday, for example, I met with a new gynecological oncologist. I was seeking a third opinion about what I should do next. Toward the end of a long discussion, the doctor was mentioning why some patients pursue aggressive surgeries, more chemotherapy, or a clinical trial - the reasons he mentioned were to lessen pain, prolong life.
Because I was clear on my own purpose, I interjected and said, I want to be clear here – my goal is to be cured. To fully heal. I am determined to do so and I need your help.
In saying this to the doctor, my purpose was no longer just mine but now a shared one. He heard me, he appeared to understand and as we said our goodbyes, the doctor told me that he would help me beat this cancer.
In addition to the importance of purpose in the practice of leadership, I have learned firsthand about the importance of being present, fully alert, fully at attention, and in turn, willing to adapt to a situation.
While I wanted it to be, the practice of leadership in the context of a health challenge is not a perfect, swift, upward trajectory of progress and meeting all identified goals.
As much as I have tried to be in control of this enormous battle, I am finally coming to terms with the reality that I cannot control or be ahead of every single detail. Such resistance and desire to control only leads to unnecessary suffering.
This year, I have learned that when it comes to one’s health, progress happens and setbacks happen. I am growing and evolving with each turn and bump in the road.
In May, after concluding with systemic chemotherapy, I learned that a new growth was found in a bone and on top of that news, I learned that I needed stents put into my ureters. Upon hearing this, I nearly morphed into a puddle of tears before my doctor’s eyes. The control that I thought I had was snatched from me. I felt blindsided by the news and struggled to adapt. Taking a step back and observing how I reacted, that suffering happened in part because I was not fully present when I met with my doctor. Feeling like victory over the cancer was within close reach, I sat in my doctor’s office with my mind somewhere in between thinking of the past, future and present. Thoughts of the past focused on my positive response thus far to the chemotherapy that I had been receiving as well as my lifestyle changes that I had been making. Thoughts of the future were a loop of – “maybe I don’t need radiation, I healed myself, I can go back to work soon.” And the little remaining space left in my mind to think and process was for the present moment.
While hope and thoughts of the future are essential motivators in the face of any adversity, it can blur and come into conflict with being in the here and now.
Last month, I again got some mixed news that while there is promising regression of tumors, a few new spots were found. But this time, having built on my experience in May, rather than resisting and melting down on the spot, I did my best to be present and adapt. I processed the information, took a deep breath and asked what can be done.
This adaptability combined with firm sense of purpose has led to learning about my treatment options, seeking out different perspectives on these options, and pursuing the path that best aligns with my purpose.
I’d like to close now on the topic of partnership, collaboration and togetherness. I learned fairly early on in this battle that I cannot lead alone. It is far too overwhelming to even attempt to navigate and fight this disease by oneself.
Identifying what I cannot do on my own and in turn, asking for and accepting help has been a major challenge and learning area for me this year.
But the outpouring of love and generous support that I have been blessed to receive from my family, especially my father who is here tonight, Chris, who is also here tonight, our Patiño Fellowship community, and my friends, has been truly unimaginable.
As challenging as this battle is, I am stronger because of you and your help. My purpose is clearer. My willingness to adapt is greater. My capacity to lead in the face of this illness is fuller because I am not alone.