It was the Fall of 2008 and Bill Milowitz didn’t feel quite like ‘himself. ’He felt a nagging, but slight discomfort in his chest and chalked it up to a pulled muscle. His wife told him not to worry, that it was ‘nothing.’ The2008 holidays came and went and the New Year began – but the discomfort persisted and not long after he discovered a fixed, hard lump beneath his right collar bone – what he found out later was called a supraclavicular lymph node. At the time Bill was 47 years old and held an important position as CEO of a private equity business headquartered in Cleveland where he commuted several days a week from his home in New Jersey. He didn’t have time to slow down and something in his gut kept telling him that the pain he was experiencing was more than just a pulled muscle.
He began clicking the keyboard and researching extensively to see if he could find some indication of what the lump might be. His wife continued to try and calm him, again telling him it was nothing to worry about. Bill’s intuition said otherwise. Following an evening out with a friend who had recently undergone surgery for a benign lung tumor – Bill told his wife that he knew he might be going through something very similar soon. With a vacation already booked to the Bahamas, they went off to try and enjoy themselves, but he found himself distracted and unable to shake the notion that something was wrong.
Upon returning, Bill went to see his local doctor, who didn’t see anything out of the ordinary during the exam, but suggested Bill have a chest x-ray while he was there. Waiting for the results felt like an eternity. It didn’t take the Doctor very long after looking at the x ray though, to confirm what Bill had sensed all along – something didn’t look quite right. He advised Bill to have a computed tomography CT scan as soon as possible.
The scan confirmed a tumor in his chest. Lymphoma was suspected, but Bill needed to undergo additional tests and scans. His general practitioner referred him to an Oncologist who immediately sent him to a surgeon for a lymph node biopsy. Bill’s wife received a call two days later confirming Bill’s diagnosis – Stage 2 Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Bill recalls the doctor, following the ‘bad’ news with the words ‘you’re lucky’ - to his wife - because the Oncologist felt the cancer was highly treatable and the prognosis was excellent.
The world stopped in that moment. My wife and I took the weekend to process the news. When we hear things as human beings – we have ‘places’ in our brain where we put them – good or bad - but I had no place to file ‘cancer’ in my mind.’ I knew I needed to find a way to deal with this next ‘stage’ of my life. Things were going to be different from then on. I knew that when Monday came I needed to be ready to take action to save my life.
Bill’s doctors advised a regimen called ABVD (Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine& Dacarbazine) – the first line of treatment of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy twice a month for six months, which was administered intravenously through his hand in the comfort of his doctor’s office, allowing him to maintain flexibility in his lifestyle.
Bill knew the coming weeks and months would be challenging, and he decided there were a few things he was unwilling to compromise on.
“ Business Privacy: My privacy at work was important to me. Yes, I wanted to reserve all my energy to get through the treatment but I also didn’t want my illness to affect my ability to lead. People’s perceptions change when they know you have cancer I kept the details of my diagnosis from them but share the news with close friends, – my wife, daughter and immediate family of course and also my CFO in Cleveland, also close friend and a critical colleague, who I knew would be supportive of my need to take several days off a month for treatment. Knowing I was going to lose my hair, I had my it cut very short, from the very beginning – I didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to myself when the hair loss began to kick in. In truth thought once chemotherapy was under-way I doubt there was an employee of mine that didn’t see clearly that I was going through Cancer treatment. In general Being private about your diagnosis at your workplace isn’t the right strategy for everyone – you need to do what is the most comfortable for you. If sharing your journey with others in your career environment makes you feel better, than I would encourage that. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. No one asks to get cancer.”
”Normalcy: I promised myself that my treatment wasn’t going to change my life more than absolutely necessary. I wanted to keep working. I continued to fly to Cleveland from New Jersey every week, as I had always done. I tried to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible at home, so that my daughter, who was 14 years old when I was diagnosed, didn’t have to ‘suffer’ cancer along with me. It helped me maintain a sense of stability in the midst of the most challenging moment I had ever faced in my life.”
After his first four weeks of treatment, Bill’s doctor told him about a test group he was conducting evaluating whether early stage PET scans in Hodgkins Lymphoma patients had any impact on their likely prognosis. Bill volunteered to be part of the group and after only two cycles of chemotherapy, Bill’s PET scan was negative, as were subsequent scans. It provided hope and peace of mind along the way that he was going to survive. His doctor also gave Bill injections to boost his white blood cell count, knowing that he was flying often and needed to stay healthy in order to continue working. Bill took extra precautions to stay well – never shaking hands, using anti-bacterial voluminously – and he never came down with a cold or any other ailment during the duration of his treatment.
Today, Bill’s life has resumed to a ‘new normal’ and he hopes others can learn some of the lessons he took away from his experience.
- “Be your own advocate. I was lucky to have a team of great doctors and nurses, but I never stopped asking questions. The more you know, the more prepared you are for what to expect along your journey. Ask your medical team ANYTHING that is on your mind. You have the right to understand the things that are obviously foreign to the average person going through this experience for the first time.”
- “Proceed with caution when looking things up on the internet. There is a lot of great information out there, but there can also be information that is not accurate and can cause unnecessary alarm. Discuss what you find online with your doctor before drawing any assumptions or conclusions.”
- “Be in touch with your own body. If something doesn’t seem quite right – talk to your doctor RIGHT AWAY. Cancer is most treatable when it is caught EARLY.”
- “Ask for help when you need it. Living with cancer becomes such a part of your life that when it is over, you can feel a little lost and lonely because you spent so much time and energy fighting it. Take time to acknowledge those feelings and seek support to reconcile them if you need to.”
Surviving cancer gave Bill gifts he didn’t expect, but will be forever grateful for.
“I saw some of the best of humanity and I will never forget that. There is a whole other side of having cancer that you don’t know about until you become a part of it. I met some terrific people during my journey – people that devote their lives to helping people like me, the nurses that administered my chemotherapy, the technicians that gave me my PET scans…other patients -and of course my Oncologist. I never want to lose touch with what this experience has meant to me. I am less worried about my cancer coming back frankly than I am about losing what this experience has given me. a new perspective and a deeply meaningful appreciation for how precious life is.”