By Angel Djambazov
A year ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Liz Strauss as she began her cancer treatment journey.
We wanted to update you on the challenges, triumphs, and surprises she’s encountered over the last year and to let you know how much she appreciates all the support she’s received.
Liz told me she felt like she had been through a crucible with the treatment. Unexpected health and personal complications made the journey even tougher than she imagined. But with the help of family, friends, and the SOBCon community, Liz has emerged cancer free, energized, and literally giddy with enthusiasm for SOBCon 2014. Here’s our interview.
On behalf of the SOBCon community, welcome back Liz. How are you feeling?
I’m at 95%. I expect to be at 100% very soon. The cancer is gone, I’m feeling more like my pre-cancer self, and I’m excited about the things I’m working on.
Where are you in your recovery?
Every four months, I get a PET scan and a CT scan, and they continue to show no signs of cancer. Luckily for me, the doctors at the University of Chicago have an eighty-five percent success rate with larynx cancer. Funny enough the doctors at Cedars Sinai, where the movie stars go, told me I’d have to lose my larynx completely and start with some mechanical way of talking. Thankfully we didn’t opt to go the route of surgery.
You’ve described the treatment to me, and the subsequent events that followed, as a crucible, why do you use that word?
It was way more difficult than I expected.
Beyond the issues normally associated with cancer treatment, I also suffered a fall that broke both my shoulder and my hip. My recovery from both the breaks and the cancer took longer because one exacerbated the other.
After six weeks of chemotherapy, I lost my hair in January then I broke my shoulder and my hip during the second week of radiation treatments. Radiation lasted every other week, ten times for a week, then a break week. Because of my injuries, I couldn’t come home, both because I physically couldn’t care for myself and because my husband also ended up in the hospital at the same time.
For several months during the radiation treatments, I couldn’t even talk on the phone because my voice wasn’t strong enough. My best friend came and took my phone calls for me.
Even after I completed radiation, a severe infection developed and lasted from March to November. I didn’t really feel my energy come back until the first week of December.
After all that, I now have the pleasure of talking to people on the phone or in person they tell me, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard your voice this strong,” or “Gosh, it’s so nice I don’t have to lean forward to hear what you’re saying.”
What impact did the treatment have on you emotionally?
Emotionally, it was rough. I’m great if people manage my expectations but I had no point of reference for this experience. There are things the doctors couldn’t cure. When my mouth was covered with sores inside it from the therapy, I expected them to fix it, because that’s what doctors do, but there wasn’t a fix.
I was naive enough to think that on the day that radiation was done I would start getting better. I didn’t realize that radiation is a lot like a microwave; it keeps cooking you for another month after the treatment. Even though it was awesome to attend SOBCon last May, I was embarrassed by how weak I felt and sounded.
I never really expected or thought I’d die from this. I find it curious now, but it never crossed my mind that I might die. I did experience extreme fear. At one point, I’d spent so many days in the hospital, I cried and begged when I had to go back in. I suppose that was because I had to give up so much of my freedom.
I also found out some things about myself. I know a lot of people who think I’m really, really kind but under that pressure, I found out what a bitch I can be. I worked to my own detriment. I don’t ever want to live that again. I’m nicer now, let’s put it that way.
It’s hard to give up your independence. How did you handle going from being so independent to being dependent on others?
I have an inherent personality trait, no matter how unrealistic it is, that I somehow believe when I get up tomorrow I can fix a problem. Giving up that independence to others was part of the process. Just say, “Hey, I can’t do this.” Terry, Carol, Britt, Eric, so many people worked to put together last year’s SOBCon so I could focus on recovery.
Of course, I felt that all I was doing was sitting and being miserable. But if I had to try to take care of all the business and life that needed to be managed, it wouldn’t have been possible. Thankfully, there were a lot of people around me who wouldn’t let me fail.
My lifelong friend, Nancy, was amazing. She lives about 100 miles away, but she drove in to take me to every appointment. She would argue for the hospital when I felt so bad that I was fiercely angry at about what I’d lost. And at those times, I was deeply worried that I’d harm our relationship, but she hung there and kept telling me not to give it a thought. Nancy even moved in with my son and me for several months because it was easier than driving back and forth from her home. She pushed me around in a wheelchair just as much as anybody in that hospital. She was a godsend.
My stylist, J-D, was the best too. He’s one of the top stylist in Chicago. He’d only cut my hair once before I got sick. We knew each other online but not in person. But as soon as he found out about the cancer, he just sort of adopted me. First he made sure I had more wigs than I needed. He cut and styled the wigs so expertly that they looked natural hair; taking care so they looked good on me. He was a master at checking in once every week or two to see if I felt like going to a movie or to lunch just so I’d get aired out. You can’t pay for friendships like that.
In what ways did handing over your independence to others impact your outlook?
It was an amazing experience to have to hand things over to others and realize how unimportant I was to the bigger scheme of things. It’s redefined my sense of what quality is. It has gotten me out of my head and more into the heads and hearts of the people that I do all this for.
As a result, I’m listening more to that core community, [who are like] the fans who would drive fifty miles to see your rock band play, because they are the ones who will always be with you. It was that core SOBCon family that challenged me after the treatment. Asking the hard questions and holding my feet to the fire. People like Becky McCray to Mark Carter to Jane Boyd, all asking questions like, “Are you well enough to even do the event in 2014?” Then, when I insisted I was, saying, “You’re going to have to prove it to us that this is the smartest thing for you to be doing right now, after what you’ve just been through physically, psychologically, emotionally, and economically that a SOBCon event is the right thing for you to do.” Of course, I just told them all just to be quiet (laughs). But those questions were worth their weight in gold.
I’m having more fun now. I’m back to where every day is a good day in my mind and I’m enjoying the creative part of things. I think there has been an attitude shift. It’ll probably take me a year to figure out what it is. I am certainly more focused on tasks than I’ve ever been in the past, and decidedly so. For me, it’s back to where it was in the days of the early event, you know the, “Get out of my way because this is going to be happening whatever it takes.”
As you started to get stronger how did it feel to step back into the swing of things?
Oddly, I was sort of afraid to get back in the swing of things again, which is an unfamiliar experience. If I could describe the best vacation ever, I would go sit on a beach and watch the ocean until I got bored and then IÂd be ready to go back to work. I donÂt think it would take very long. But by going back to work you are giving up the luxury of time. It has been my experience in the past that once you decide to step back into this there was nothing to be afraid of or worried about.
The fundraiser the community put together helped so much because it was something to hold onto. It meant I didn’t have to worry about the complete loss of income. For a few short months, I could just focus on getting better. I also didn’t want to worry about my son having to take care of us.
As nice as it was to have Eric there, it’s not nice to think about the interruption this is in his life. At his age, I was doing a lot of the same things for my mother so I was kind of reliving it from both points of view, except he had it more complicated because there was only one week that my dad was in the hospital while my mom was sick.
Now that I am back everyone is saying, “Hey, it’s great to see you!” so that doesn’t hurt either. It is affirming, especially online where I don’t have to get self-conscious about it.
What are you looking forward to most in 2014?
Wow, I have high expectations for 2014 because it has to be good enough to cover two years! I am actually looking forward to putting on my high heel shoes again, once my physical therapist says my hip is fixed. I’m looking forward to spring. I’m looking forward to watching and taking pictures of the sunrise every morning again; it’s a most wonderful way to start the day. I’m looking forward to going out to eat and enjoy what I’m eating and to be hungry again.
What direction is SOBCon heading?
For a conference to survive, it must evolve. With every evolution of SOBCon, we’ve tried to distill our message. When we held the first event, it was because 125 people who knew each other very well online decided that they wanted to meet in person, and you can’t replicate that. We called that first event the “Relationship Bloggers Conferencing Network Event.” A bit wordy, but pretty clear who it was for and what you’d get out of it.
For our next evolution, we decided to take a more business focus because there were so many people building up blogs and then saying, “I want to make money,” which was kind of backwards. As a result, the idea came that we should link all the content to an actionable plan to build a revenue stream, except for the financials, because you couldn’t fit those into a day and a half, and so we called it “BizSchool for Bloggers.”
When I think our focus got murky was when we decided to take the word “blogger”out of our tagline, to keep the online to offline relationship, so we called it, “Where the Virtual Meets the Concrete.” But I think looking back it wasn’t easy to define and I don’t think that anybody actually got the message we were intending to deliver with a tag line. So as a result of our history as a “Blogger conference” the event got named a social media event when in fact it’s always been a business event that is meant to serve the people who were from the blogging and social media communities.
While planning for this year, I was caught saying it was an event for online businesses. It was pointed out to me that so many who attend run face-to-face businesses. Carol Roth runs a face-to-face business. Les McKeown runs a face-to-face business. Tim Sanders, Steve Farber, and all of these people who are part of the SOBCon community are all in a face-to-face business. It made me pause and, with the help of my friends, rethink what we are trying to do, what our focus is. For me that process was truly reinvigorating!
It’s why I’m excited to introduce you to the SOBCon Leverage. Why leverage? Because you need two things to be successful in business: 1) Strong and deep connective relationships, and 2) actionable plans and ideas. That is what SOBCon provides for anyone who attends. Leverage to build your business or brand. Leverage to help keep your business or brand growing towards its goals. Because you need leverage to succeed whether you’re in a corporation or on a team of one.
There are dozens of folks who will testify, myself included, to what a transcending experience SOBCon can be. Will focusing on Leverage change SOBCon?
Well, no, that part of SOBCon is not going to change. We’ve got that right. During our process of selecting presenters, I’m always focused on being sure they understand the ethic of the event. The SOBCon rule about presenters is, somebody has to present the content, and certainly that person should be someone that people want to see, but just because you present the content doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than anyone else in the room. SOBCon is not the kind of event where your ego can enter the room before you do. Those egos are not welcome.
I love how Lisa Horner describes it. “You immediately walk into a room and you feel this sense of community. It’s a good feeling that you belong to. But then they put on these brilliant speakers with brilliant ideas and, because you’ve been opened up to this sense of trust, you experience learning in a whole new way.”
Or as Mark Carter said the other day, “After you reach a certain point in your industry you don’t go to events to go to the sessions. You go to the event to network with people. But when there’s thousands of people at a show, you have to negotiate through them to even find that one influencer/that one person you want to meet.” My response to that is, why not just go to the room with 144 people you want to meet? At SOBcon we bring them to you.
It’s that high-trust environment that makes the magic in the room happen. It’s something that I guard, protect, and work very hard to cultivate at the very beginning of every event to insure that all the right pieces are in place so that the magic happens again. After 10 events, I’ve become a pretty good magician.
Hearing you talk about SOBCon you sound vibrant and giddy. It is good to hear you that way.
I’m just looking forward to putting SOBCon together this year that I can’t get over it! When I say it’s the best year, I’m sure of it! You know the chemo-brain thing has gone away, and the fog from the treatment has lifted. I’m beginning to take my brain out and play. For me SOBCon is the ultimate expression of that. Both because of what I get to do to build it, but because of what everybody gets to experience it when they come. Few things are more powerful then when 144 people take out their brains to play and to actually get work done.
You can find your own SOBCon Leverage by purchasing tickets here: SOBCon Leverage, Chicago 2014 takes place June 27-29, 2014 at the Summit Executive Center. Will you be in the room?