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  • Writer's pictureHoward Brown

Putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again after cancer - by Howard Brown

Entrepreneur, author, speaker, coach, and survivor, Howard Brown, talks about his experience and shares his advice for others with cancer.

Howard Brown is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, best-selling author of Shining Brightly, award-winning international speaker, inspirational podcaster, survivorship coach, health technology consultant and two-time stage IV cancer patient and survivor 30 years apart. He shares the keys to leading a resilient life with hope that drives successful community leaders, business innovators and healthcare advocates. Be prepared to be inspired!

A Cancer Journey is a Team Sport

I am a two-time stage IV cancer survivor, 30 years apart—so I know that the moment we hear the words, “You have cancer,” everything comes to a screeching halt. I was that deer in the headlights at age 23 in 1989 with stage IV non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

My story changed after the shock of my second diagnosis. This time, I became like a Marine on a mission when I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic colon cancer after my 50-year-old colonoscopy.

Even though my awareness of what I was facing and my commitment was different than when I fought cancer in my 20s—these diagnoses both filled me with fear.

Cancer I

In October 1989 at the age of 23½, I was diagnosed with stage IV T-cell non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (blood cancer of my lymphatic system). I moved back home with my parents, and they became my caregivers. As we started this journey, we knew nothing—and there was little we could find, compared with today’s Internet. We kept searching for answers, because I failed all the chemo regimens the doctors tried. I kept relapsing. In February of 1990, my twin sister turned out to be an exact 10-for-10 HLA match for a bone marrow (now called stem cell) transplant at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Miracle No. 1: My twin sister had a 1-in-25,000 chance of being a donor match for me.

Entrepreneur, author, speaker, coach, and survivor, Howard Brown, talks about his experience and shares his advice for others with cancer.

On May 17, 1990, I checked into an isolation room for a blasting of chemotherapy and twice-daily full-body radiation to knock out my immune system. On the morning of May 24, 1990, my twin sister had bone marrow extracted from her hip bones. That marrow was treated and infused in me at 5:44 pm that day. We watched to see if the transplant would kill me right away, cause any type of severe graph-vs-host disease—or, we hoped, begin to rebuild my immune system. My twin sister saved me and I was able to put Humpty-Dumpty 1.0 back together again. As a result, I moved far from home to Marina Del Rey, California.

One important side note: Before I did one drop of chemotherapy, my liver function tests were running too high for safe infusion. While we waited for those levels to subside, my oncologist spoke to me about fertility options and going to the cryogenic center to leave a sperm sample preserved.

Miracle No. 2: Because I beat cancer, that decision to visit the cryogenic center allowed me to get married—then my wife and I could call for the frozen sperm eleven years later and be blessed with our miracle girl—our daughter Emily.

Cancer II

Those early successes gave me 26 years of life. I got married; put my career as a Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur back on track; became a dad; and involved myself in volunteer community service.

Then, lightning struck again. At age 50 in June 2016, I went in for my routine colonoscopy and was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. Back to more surgeries and chemotherapy. This time, my wife Lisa stepped in as my primary caregiver. One year later, I was metastatic stage IV with the cancer spreading to my liver, stomach lining, and bowel. Would I get to see my daughter, who was then in 9th grade, graduate from high school?

Entrepreneur, author, speaker, coach, and survivor, Howard Brown, talks about his experience and shares his advice for others with cancer.

Why was I hit twice? I learned that young-onset cancer patients can develop a secondary cancer. I wish I had gotten screened for colorectal cancer years earlier. In the US, the recommended screening age was just lowered from 50 to 45, unless you have family history or symptoms.

Because I learned from my first bout with a deadly form of cancer that this fight is truly a team sport—I knew that I needed to reach out for allies. In 2016 there were many more digital support options and my wife and I found for patient and caregiver information and support. It was there I learned about CRS HIPEC—a massive surgery to remove all cancer cells from my stomach lining, liver, abdomen, bowel and then my doctor used heated chemotherapy placed in the pelvis and abdomen to kill micro-cells of cancer. This life-extending mother of all surgeries helped me to reach NED (No Evidence of Disease)—and has kept me there for four years at this time.

Once again, I am a work in progress, reassembling Humpty-Dumpty 2.0 day by day.

Battling cancer, we share a lot—but we’re each on a unique journey

There is no one-size-fits-all all survivorship plan. Whether you are still battling cancer or trying to reassemble the first pieces of your old life again—or you’re somewhere along the journey toward consistent reports of NED at your checkups—you have discovered that there are many different paths we can take.

Our journeys likely start with chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, side effects and often we are placed on “surveillance” mode. Typically, there are quarterly blood tests and CT scans. For me, I have the hidden side effects of chemo brain (also called brain fog / PTSD), peripheral neuropathy and digestive / bathroom issues still persist. They are hidden.

People assume you look and feel great and many days I do — but I carry with me an enormous legacy of my treatments. If that’s your experience, you are not alone!

We share so many challenges:

  1. Getting our emotional well-being back on track

  2. Building our physical stamina and fitness moving forward

  3. Figuring out our finances and career situation

  4. Nurturing relationships with our family, friends and co-workers

That’s all part of what I call “putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again.” Many people are overwhelmed with trying to navigate “after cancer.” Our lives are not the same after what we have just lived through. These changes may be very difficult — including finding a job again.

I chose to publish my memoir Shining Brightly to help others. I speak at conferences to share my stories and experiences so that others may find inspiration for getting back up again. I started an inspirational podcast to highlight others’ human resolve and ability to help lift up others.

Survivorship, like fighting cancer, is a team sport. Build your team or let others like me help you take the positive steps forward to help you shine brightly every day.

My heartfelt advice to others facing cancer:

Do not go at it alone.

It’s time to rally the troops and build your team. Surround yourself with a care partner, mentor and people who care for your well-being.

Time to be selfish in your time of need.

Be able to accept help from family, friends and even strangers.

Get smart and educated about your diagnosis.

Online resources and cancer advocacy networks have an abundance of resources.

Collaborate with your caregivers—and thank them!

Care partners, doctors and nurses are your lifeline. Thank them repeatedly.

Make memories.

Spend time with loved ones and experience things that lift your spirit.

Find your happy place and go there often.

Hiking, biking, nature, art, sports, cooking, yoga, meditation, travel—whatever lifts your spirit can be your “happy place.”

Love yourself and share your light

Each day, go to the mirror and say “I love myself because—"

More and more people are living longer with cancer, I hope and pray you will too. Cancer is a team sport where we can all join hands and face it together.


Book a FREE call with a survivorship mentor to talk about your experience with colorectal cancer


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