I had been sitting there for an hour, maybe a bit longer. It was the first time I had ever done a book signing, and I was not really prepared for the people—or lack of people—I would encounter. Every time someone would near my table, I’d look up and smile; they’d see the book—some of them even mouthing the title to themselves— and then most would avert their eyes and walk away.
She was different. She picked up my book, looked at the title, and turned the volume over to read the blurbs about the content and author printed on the back. Then she put the book down, looked at me, and said, “So, what did you learn from cancer? Tell me in 10 words.” I was taken aback, suddenly feeling transported back to teenaged years, as though I were being interrogated by my parents after having come home too late on a school night. I looked back at her, squinted a bit, and peered into the air, at a spot just above and to the right of her head. The place I always looked for the answer to a question I had no idea how to respond to.
I paused just long enough to make her impatient. “Well?”
“Wait! Wait! I’m thinking. You gave me only 10 words: I have to make the most of them!” We both laughed.
I don’t remember the rest of the encounter. I cannot recall what I answered, nor do I even remember if she bought the book. What I do remember is the consequence: I spent the rest of my time there puzzling over the answer to her question. “What had I learned from cancer?” I asked myself over and over again.
You’d think that responding to that question would be pretty straightforward. After all, I had just written a book by that title. However, my writing process had evolved differently: it had never been that didactic, as if I'd been answering an exam question. Instead, I had formed a title and then moved on to craft the narrative of my experience. I figured I must have learned something from my intense encounters with cancer, and I figured that something must be buried in my story somewhere. So, if I told the story well, I reasoned, any reader would end up learning the same things I had learned. Oddly enough, I had never once wondered, “What happens if someone asks me what I learned?” With that woman’s startling question to me, I realized I needed to discover the answer.
While I have never been a sales professional, I have taken a number of sales courses. One of the lessons stuck particularly well: always have an elevator speech ready. That’s the succinct presentation you can give to someone whilst moving from one floor to another in an elevator. You make it clear, impactful, and under a minute long. What had I learned from cancer?
The probing question first asked that day has since produced the core of everything I say about my experience of cancer. Every time I am asked to speak, regardless of the context, I hone in on the same key points. Whether engaged in an informal chat, preaching at a church, giving a workshop, presenting a keynote address, or doing a media interview, it is always these three points that are at the heart of my message.
So what did I learn from cancer?
First, I am not my disease and I will resist those who would treat me as though I am.
Second, community is more powerful than isolation and needs both to be fostered and held on to during times of crisis.
Finally, wholeness of person is more important than physical health and needs to be given the most prominent place of anything you can strive for in life.
While there are certainly other important things that I learned from cancer, these three lessons distill the essence of my experience and comprise the core of what I believe about all life circumstances, particularly those times of crisis in our lives. As a result, I share them whenever I can.
A couple of months after my initial encounter with a book browser anxious to have me tell her what I learned from cancer, I sat at another book store. By then I had long formed and held the key lessons learned firmly in my mind, and I had had seemingly countless occasions to speak them out. Nevertheless, the inquisitor’s challenge remained: could I answer her question in ten words? And so, pulling out a pen and piece of paper, I began to write down my ideas. It took a bit of time, but I eventually got my message captured in not just ten words, but six.
His latest book, What I Learned from Cancer, is available in electronic form at his payhip.com site: http://bit.ly/wilfc-ebook. Physical copies of the book are available at the Prompters to Life web store, where shipping on copies of the soft cover edition is always free (except to the international space station). To order a paper copy of the book visit: http://prompterstolife.com/shoppers