Luke Lively: Thyroid Cancer Warrior

Luke Lively was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer while at the high point of his impressive career and just before the release of his first book. What was going on in your life when cancer hit? Tell us your story in the comments below! 

Luke Lively is a longtime banker, consultant, father, husband, exercise enthusiast, and author of critically acclaimed bestseller, A Questionable Life. He recently sat down with Cancer Spot to discuss his ongoing battle with Thyroid Cancer over the past 6 years.


CS: Tell us about your diagnosis

LL: I was speaking at the University of Texas in Dallas at their MBA group in mid-December 2008 and by the time I got out of there, I couldn’t talk. I went home and I was shaken the next morning because I noticed a lump in my throat about the size of a Ping-Pong ball… I went to a specialist and they took a biopsy, but no cancer was found. So they were kind of blasé about it and said “well you can get it out when you want to.” So I put off the surgery because I was so busy at that point (in January) with everything leading up to my first book release, so I put it off ‘til April. By that time it had grown to the size of a grapefruit. It was almost 8cm across.

So at this point they still weren’t totally sure that it was cancer. They told me I could go home—even though at this point I’m kinda freaking out about everything—and said that they would call me in a day or two. The next day I get a call from the doctor at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and she says, “Well it’s cancer. I got another call, gotta go.” That’s exactly what happened.

And I can tell you right now where I was standing, the temperature in the room and I was like, “Say what?” So I called her back and her assistant said, “Well she’s on the phone,” and I said, “She just called me up and told me I have cancer. I’d like to know what’s going on.” So she got back on the phone and said simply, “Well, you’ve got cancer, we’ve got work to do. I’m going to start scheduling your next surgeries.” They scheduled the first surgery for May 28th, the exact date I was supposed to speak at a huge book exposition for my book to drop. I was a Stage IV A. I had a 51% chance of living 5 years, and that was in early 2009.

CS: Tell us about your book and how that relates to your cancer experience

LL: Someone told me, “If you’re going to write a book, you better write it on something that you have a little bit of experience in.” So I did. It is a novel but the background of it came from dealing with a lot of Boards of Directors in my career, a lot of pretty greedy guys who were struggling to find happiness and balance in their lives.

Many people who read my book say, “well he wrote that about his cancer experience,” but I wrote the book long before I was ever diagnosed. But my own book helped me get through it. What my treatments really came down to was taking it one day at a time, treating it as a process, not getting too far ahead, just thinking about one day at a time.

The times I felt the most anxiety or worry were the times when I got out of step with that and would be overwhelmed because I was looking at everything all at once instead of just one step at a time. The book helped remind me of that.

A Questionable Life by Luke Lively

CS: Have you spoken to many others who are fighting your same type of cancer?

LL: A friend of mine from Graduate school, his brother-in-law got the same kind of cancer as me so he called me up so we could talk about it. And this fellow with cancer, he was kind of calloused about the whole thing. And I just told him “look, I can tell you what I went through, but I’m not gonna tell you how to do it. I’ll listen to you and I’m here for you. So we talked a lot and really all I did was listen. And that’s what I learned, that listening is most important. That’s why I think that what you’re doing with Cancer Spot is gonna have some incredible value because people that are going through cancer, listening is 90% of what they need, especially in the early stages.

CS: Tell us about the recurrence and fighting cancer for the second time now

LL: I had been losing weight at my doctor’s recommendation, and after that my throat started tightening and I wasn’t sure what was going on… Shortly after that, I moved from Texas to South Carolina and I changed doctors. Well I wasn’t satisfied with what my first doctor in South Carolina was telling me, so I went to get a second opinion at Duke. Right away, the doctors at Duke said, “Oh no. The cancer is there. It’s active, and it looks like it’s spread to your lungs.”

They put me through a radiation treatment that almost wiped out my kidneys and mentally at that point I’m just thinking, “this might be it” you know? I was really struggling, I was praying for healing and praying to get better. But at some point, a switch kinda flipped and I just prayed to be able to accept God’s will. Everyone’s gonna die at some point and if my time was coming soon I just hoped that I would be able to accept that. So it changed my entire outlook on faith and on life.

One example: I’ve got lots of really nice suits that I’ve collected as a banker but I try my best to not wear a suit. I’m a blue jeans guy and I like to go with that whenever I can. My cancer experience has just taught me to minimize and simplify things to what’s really important.

"Spending time on a boat in the inlet with my family in the midst of my cancer recurrence. Inside, a lot was going on"

“Spending time on a boat in the inlet with my family in the midst of my cancer recurrence. Inside, a lot was going on”

CS: How have treatments been going this time around?

LL: The radiation treatments have really just been taking a toll on my body and the side effects have been intense. So this last year has just been about trying to get healthier again, trying to get better. So I’ve been walking again, I’ve been able to get back to the gym and now in mid-April I should begin another radiation treatment.

For the radiation treatments they give you a pill and you basically have to go into quarantine. You have to stay away from everyone because you’re so toxic.

We did ultrasounds the other day, we did chest x-rays and there’s no new tumors. So that’s good news. The kidneys haven’t improved significantly, but they are a little better so that’s good too. I’m getting ready to go through Round 4 of treatment. But the odds were 50-50 for me to live beyond 5 years when I was first diagnosed and I’m already beyond that. It will be 6 years in May.

CS: What do you think about Cancer Spot so far? Be honest.

LL: I think it’s fantastic. And you know, one of the things that I found in going through my own cancer experience was not really having a wealth of other people going through a cancer journey that I could really talk to. Unless you’re luck enough to find someone locally with your same type of cancer, you’re really kind of stuck. And even then, some people are more willing to open up to people they meet online than people who they already know or meet face to face, just because cancer can be such a difficult thing to talk about. I really think what you’re doing is going to save someone’s life.

CS: Last question. How have you been able to stay positive and well grounded through all of this?

LL: You know, my grandfather committed suicide, and my father committed suicide when I was young. So early on in life I was thinking, “is that gonna be me?” And the answer is no. I won’t let it. So there’s always been a resolute positivity that comes with that commitment.

But cancer has forced me to confront my own mortality and be realistic about it. A lot of people, whether they’re in their 20s or 80s, never think that they’re going to die. But this whole experience has helped teach me that it doesn’t matter how much money is in your bank account, how many people have heard of you. At the end of the day, if you’ve got three or four people around you that love you and care for you, you’ve got it.

But even with that, there are some times when it’s tough. You just have to be able to overcome the tidal wave of your own emotions that hit you. Because there ain’t no way to be totally immune to it… It’s still just a process of one day at time, one step at a time.

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