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Radical Adaptability: The Zeitgeist for Survivors in 2021

Here's what cancer survivors have in common with businesses and couples today.

Key points

  • The more primal the loss, the deeper the change it brings forth.
  • Individuals and companies that cannot adapt are more likely to fail.
  • Looking to people (and businesses) who have literally had the rug torn from under their feet provides inspiration.

Things have happened to us that we didn’t want.

We can’t have it the way we used to do.

It’s time to find new ways.

Whose voices are you hearing? Friends? Businesses? Your own?

There are losses to mourn. And sometimes, we can see change as an opportunity—even if it involves allowing a part of ourselves to die. This has been my most profound learning from prostate cancer—and from my career as a social entrepreneur.

Letting go to let new ways come.

If you are in the midst of a loss, “let go” may be the last thing you want to hear. I am not advocating skipping over your grief and/or anger. And in the case of business loss, nothing beats some rational analysis of what went wrong and why.

There are no real shortcuts to venting your feelings in times of loss and radical change. Likewise, it’s important to think logically about practical changes. This post offers an additional resource: Share surprising stories of adaptability. Let them inspire you to go beyond conventional wisdom and crack the unmanageable changes that need to happen.

We all have to pivot radically to survive beyond 2021.

The number-one factor affecting business survival in 2021 is radical adaptability. It’s also one of the most crucial factors in the quality of life of cancer survivors and their nearest and dearest. What can these two apparently different interest groups learn from each other?

The learning that emerges will likely also help all of us respond to the mental health challenges of the pandemic era. And I am sure I don’t have to point out the resonance of my theme with climate change.

So let’s take a look at two apparently unrelated communities. You might be surprised how much they can learn from each other.

Many businesses are almost as vulnerable as individuals right now.

Focusing on change in 2021 is way beyond change management—this is about navigating change so profound that it is almost unimaginable.

  • Example: A business that sold international leisure travel wakes up in the middle of a pandemic. I have a friend who took one piece of that business and turned it into a digital marketing agency.
  • Example: An organization run by white men for generations wakes up in a #BLM and #MeToo world that expects to see women and people of color holding major leadership roles. Courageous change agents around the world are making it happen.
  • Example: You have shares in a business that has made billions in the carbon-based economy, and that game is up. New green economies are germinating as we speak.

What all these examples have in common is that if the business tries to carry on business as usual, it will die. If you or your friends are entrepreneurs or employees, I almost guarantee their future livelihood depends on radical change.

Don’t be lulled into thinking change is easy just because there are slogans about change in all the media. Cancer survivors have to find radical new ways to enjoy what remains of life. They face the personal equivalent of having their business livelihood wrecked by unwanted change. Everybody knows cancer can kill us. Most cancer survivors experience a severe disability during and after cancer treatment. In fact, the imminent possibility of death is often overwhelming.

If we can’t adapt, we will die sooner rather than later—just like those businesses hemorrhaging jobs. And what’s worse, the quality of our last days will be abysmal. In addition to medically surviving cancer and its treatment, we need to radically transform our relationship with ourselves and others to enjoy life post-cancer diagnosis.

Loss, pain, adaptation, resilience, reinvention. These are key themes in the cancer survivor communities I belong to. (See more on this here.) If we are lucky enough to survive, we get the opportunity to change and find new life in truly rewarding ways. Here are some examples to remind you: No change is too big.

When cancer treatment challenges primal sexual identity and function.

Look to cancer survivors for inspiration about ingenious adaptation. Because my cancer was in my prostate (buried at the core of the male pelvis), I’ve learned a lot about adaptation regarding sexual function. Breast cancer survivors tell analogous stories of primal challenges to their identity and relationship. It’s relevant because sex is about as primal to the survival of human beings as the examples above are to businesses. Many couples find conventional sex simply doesn’t work after one or both start cancer treatment. It might be due to erectile dysfunction after prostate cancer, vaginal atrophy after breast cancer treatment, or libido failure after hormone deprivation therapy.

Primal challenge brings forth radical change.

From this community come some remarkable examples of adaptation:

  • A gay man with incurable prostate cancer in the UK is prescribed chemical castration for the rest of his life. His hormone suppression treatment brings a sudden and heart-rending end to his active sex life. Yet, he not only forges and maintains a new long-term relationship with a younger and sexually dynamic man but together, they adapt to share new forms of sensuality and loving connection.
  • A heterosexual couple in North America, in which he has total erectile dysfunction, figure out a way to have satisfying penetrative and mutually orgasmic sex: He wears a strap-on. A man getting physical pleasure via a piece of silicon rubber strapped onto the outside of his disabled body? He reports on “the eroticism that has developed between my partner, myself, and our dildo.” That’s adaptation. Read the full scientific case study here, including a discussion of the neurobiology of “the rubber hand illusion.”
  • Cancer pushes two nonbinary couples in Australia to shift their connection away from conventional sex. One says: “Now [orgasms] don’t really exist because of the medications and treatments. I’ve managed to really drop into the lack of agenda and the amazingness of just pleasure… There are ways of connecting with another human that can be quite intensely physical and sexual that don’t have to be about penises and vaginas.” Listen to the podcast with their full conversation.

Can you feel the freshness, the radical pivoting of the way things used to be normal? It’s the global zeitgeist of this decade.

Change as if your life depends on it. Because it does.

Radical adaptability is as profound for the future of relationships as it is for the future of business. And it is crucial for the very immediate dilemmas we all face in dealing with a pandemic and a global way of living that threatens the survival of the human species. That’s why it is important to share gutsy change stories across business and personal lives amongst cancer survivors and those in good health. At a deeper level, we are in this together.