Former Comcast & AT&T CEO Mike Armstrong: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

--

…Bouncing Boards. Find others with cancer or those who have had cancer, especially the type you are facing. You can learn from and get much-needed support from these folks as you make your trip through “recovery.”

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Armstrong.

Mike Armstrong is the former Chairman and CEO of Comcast, AT&T and Hughes Electronics. He began his career at IBM, where he spent more than three decades rising through the ranks to become chairman of the IBM World Trade Corporation. Having battled leukemia and prostate cancer as well as serious illness throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he became an active supporter of Johns Hopkins Medical School and its hospitals after retiring from the corporate world in 2002. In 2005, he was named chairman of the Board of Trustees of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Now fully retired, Armstrong is on a mission to share his story as a two-time cancer survivor to help others on the cancer journey find hope. He and his wife Anne are donating most of their net worth to projects that advance medicine, help the disadvantaged, and make this world a better place.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

I was born in Detroit, Michigan to wonderful, hard working parents. I was raised during WWII, and we all learned the value and importance of hard work and sacrifice. I got my first job at age 11 doing lawn work in my neighborhood and then at 15 got a special drivers’ permit to drive a truck to pick up and deliver abandoned railroad ties for a landscaping company. During college, I worked as a bartender and also worked six days a week summers at a flour mill, loading/unloading 100/140-pound flour bags to and from box cars.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never Give Up”

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?

I found out about my first cancer (hairy cell leukemia) from a phone call. After 31 years with IBM, I took the CEO job at Hughes Electronics in Los Angeles. Right after I moved to California, during my second week at this new and demanding position, I got a call from my doctor back East, who had recently given me a very complete physical exam. Instead of telling me I was healthy and all is well, he told me I had Leukemia, that it was serious, and had had gone undetected for some time. He referred me to one of the Los Angeles’ top leukemia experts at the UCLA Cancer Center. That’s a tough way to start a new career!

I learned I had my second cancer (prostate cancer) after my PSA numbers started rising mysteriously. I say mysteriously because a series of biopsies showed no evidence of cancer. As it turned out, the cancer was in the front of my prostate, making it hard to detect. When they finally detected it, it had gone unnoticed for a long time (like my first cancer). We did not know how serious it was until they opened me up and saw that my cancer had expanded out of my prostate and into my abdomen. A quick surgery turned into an extended procedure, and I went from expecting to be cancer free post-surgery to being told I had a 50 percent chance of living cancer free for five years.

In addition, both of these cancers gave me serious additional illnesses that each had the potential to also take my life. With my leukemia, I got a blood infection that turned into sepsis and put me in an ICU for a harrowing week of uncertainty. With my prostate cancer I developed a Parsonage-Turners Syndrome (PTS) which damaged my phrenic nerves and reduced my ability to breath to 20 percent of capacity.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

Like many other cancer patients, the worst possible outcome is death, which I faced numerous times with both my cancers and the associated diseases I suffered. Short of death, probably my worst outcomes were the sepsis I encountered after my treatment for leukemia and the PTS I suffered with my prostate cancer. Likely the most difficult news I ever received was that when the first-time cancer (leukemia) entered my life, which was a phone call from my doctor that I got during my first weeks as CEO of Hughes Electronics, it was both the worst day of my life and the most memorable. In essence, this doctor was telling me that I might die! That is something that is very hard to forget.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

In both cases, my leukemia and prostate cancer, when I learned that my cancer had gone undetected for too long, I knew I was in a fight for my life. My first imperative was to seek out and secure the best medical care and advice. In both instances I was able to locate a specialist in my particular type of cancer. Both of these physicians worked at NCI-designated cancer, so I knew they were connected to the most up-to-date research and data on cancer diagnosis and treatment. With my leukemia, my doctor enrolled me in a clinical trial of a new drug that literally saved my life.

Regarding my career, I had to do a lot to manage my work schedule. Since I was CEO, this involved a much higher level of assessment and action. Not only that but my final decision on how to deal with my cancer was not just mine to make. I had to answer to and consult with both board of directors at Hughes and also the board at General Motors, which had a controlling share of Hughes. Collectively, we agreed that it would be best not to share my cancer with the general public. The risk was that it might erode confidence both from employees and shareholders. We decided to wait 30 days, which was the length of time I was scheduled to be receiving chemo therapy. After that, we would have more information about my chances of survival. If the chemo worked, if I was cancer free, there was no reason to raise concern among shareholders and company employees. If the chemo didn’t work, we would consider how and when to break the news about my cancer.

That did not mean that it was business as usual. I had a chemo pack strapped to my waist with a tube going into my arm feeding chemo 24–7 that was hard to hide at work. So I told co-workers that my doctor was monitoring my health and that was enough to assuage curiosity. However, chemo and the low blood counts from my leukemia drained my energy. So I had to cut back on my long workdays and travel. In addition, I suspended my regular workout routine, something that I depended on to help me relax. The good news was my treatment was aggressive and only lasted 30 days. After that, if I was still battling cancer, I would be able to share the news with a larger group of supporters. Luckily, in 30 days, I was cancer free!

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

Having a high-profile job as CEO for a major US corporation meant I could not share my illness with anyone except for my wife, secretary, and doctor. As such, that was my “support group”. My wife, Anne, of course, was my biggest supporter. We met while in high school and have supported each other throughout the many ups and downs of our lives together. And while I was on my own in California (my wife was still back East settling our affairs), Anne and I had regular daily phone calls that were an essential component of my wellness and treatment regime.

In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?

The biggest message cancer brings is that it can kill you. And while this was always on my mind, I was determined not to let it kill me. I knew I had one primary goal, and that was to eliminate the cancer from the rest of my life. This was so different from other challenges I had faced in my life, both physical and medical. This was truly the “fight of my life”, it was a fight that had but one winner, the cancer or me.

Another message this disease taught me was how precious life was and how it important it was to appreciate it and make the most of it, and give back for all that life had given me.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?

I learned that when life throws challenges your way, you need to do your best to meet these challenges. I also learned that this is not easy. Cancer is one of the toughest challenges anyone faces in this life. Most of us struggle to keep positive in the face of all this uncertainty and continuous bad news. Still I believe one needs to do their best to try to keep hope. Hope alone won’t cure cancer, but combined with good treatments and great medical advice, it is a powerful strategy to keep you on course, fighting your disease with all you ‘ve got.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

After living through the advanced leukemia and prostate cancer, my wife and I felt as though we needed to have a clear purpose in life, something that made a difference making this world a better place. In essence, we wanted to do what we could to help others who were less fortunate than us. So, we decided to give away the majority of our life savings to worthwhile causes and medical research.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

Cancer is death. Just not true. Cancer is an illness, often a serious illness. But increasingly medicine and therapy are controlling and/or eliminating cancer.

Can cancer come back? Yes, I had three different cancers and all serious. I fought them with excellent doctors, the right medications and necessary recovery timeframes. Once cancer comes into your life, it seems to be always lurking over your shoulder.

Your cancer doctor. Cancer demands not just a doctor, but the right doctor for your disease. I had the right doctors. My Leukemia doctor was a cancer specialist at the UCLA Cancer Center, my prostate cancer doctor at Johns Hopkins Medicine and my carcinoma doctor were also renowned specialists. My advice is look for an academic research center and/or and National Cancer Institute designated cancer center. These are the hospitals that have the most up-to-date information about cancer. And if they don’t know about your type of cancer, they can find someone who does. That does not mean that you can’t also be treated by a local oncologist, but just make sure you get a consultation at one of these major cancer centers. It cannot hurt, and in many cases it helps a lot.

Also make sure you explore the possibility of clinical trials. Important to note, clinical trials are not designed to save cancer patients but to learn about new drugs and treatment, so there are no guarantees. But it is just one more tool in the cancer tool shed that you should be aware of and explore.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. The right doctor for your cancer.

2. The right medicine for both your cancer and your medical condition.

3. A fighting attitude. Cancer is a tough disease that is tough on you and demands a fighting, determined, and sustaining patient to prevail.

4. Make room in your job and life to fight your cancer. I cancelled all travel and significantly reduced my long workdays.

5. Bouncing Boards. Find others with cancer or those who have had cancer, especially the type you are facing. You can learn from and get much-needed support from these folks as you make your trip through “recovery.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I wanted to inspire hope in cancer patients and encourage them to never give up. Part of this was by sharing my story and the stories of other who have faced difficult cancer challenges. In addition, I wanted to provide guidance and advice from cancer experts on how to select an appropriate/effective doctor, learn about treatment options, and how to generally navigate the difficult, confusing and circuitous path through the cancer journey. “Cancer with Hope” is meant to help the cancer patients though this journey wherever it might take them and to remind them to appreciate life and try to make the most of it, no matter what challenges lie ahead.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

--

--

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor