Christy Kercheville has been successfully coaching executives for years, advising business leaders to be present, adjust their mindset, and be the best version of themselves. But when she was diagnosed with a rare form of muscle cancer called leiomyosarcoma, she realized she could have a taste of her own medicine – in a good way.
It was March 2020 when Kercheville entered the emergency room with abdominal pain and what she thought was appendicitis. After considerable time diagnosing the problem, she discovered that she had cancer in her abdominal cavity and would need major surgery to remove the tumor.
As the pandemic took hold around her cancer diagnosis, she was forced to be in the hospital with no visitors. Also, she was told that she would have to stay in the hospital for 5-7 days after the operation. For Kercheville, it was too long to be tied to a bed, and she knew she would need all the skills in her toolbox to recover faster.
She reached out to her longtime friend and colleague Holly St. John Peck, CEO and founder of The Peck Training Group, a training and professional development company. “When you’re going through a crisis, coaches need coaches,” Kercheville said. “We rely on coaches to help us make sure we are using the tools correctly due to an emotional block such as a health issue.”
Even before the operation, Peck and Kercheville started talking about visualizing a best-case scenario and how long it would take to have an operation without complications. She was told she could end up with a permanent limp or lose her kidney. She remembers thinking about what time she would see on the clock after a successful operation.
Her UT Southwest care team told her that four days would be the minimum time she would spend in the hospital. Her abdominal cavity had a massive vertical incision, but she was determined to make it happen. She worked on breathing without disturbing the sutures, being present in the moment and visualizing getting out of the hospital bed. After only a few days, she walked up and down the stairs in the hospital.
“I remember that the hospital staff couldn’t believe my strength,” says Kercheville. “I go up and down the stairs. I’m doing whatever it takes to get out of here.
As Peck worked with her friend, she saw many parallels between training business leaders and managing a health crisis. She emphasized meditation, visualization, and reframing negative self-talk with Kercehville, much like she does when working with executives.
“There’s a lot of fear that comes in health crises, and fear is often the enemy,” Peck says. “It creates all kinds of cortisol and stress hormones in your body that thwart the healing process.”
Focusing on what lies ahead and having hope for the future is a strategy used in the corporate world, but Peck has found it to be powerful when dealing with health issues as well. Instead of talking about cancer, the two friends discussed Kercheville’s plans after his recovery.
The convalescence went well and Kercheville was released from the hospital in four days. She was cancer-free until November 2021, when another tumor showed up on her CT scan. This time, the UTSW healthcare team recommended a cutting-edge radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiation therapy, which uses focused radiation to treat tumors. Kercheville underwent this process this year at UT Southwestern’s Simmons Cancer Center.
In September, doctors discovered another tumor, and Kercheville began chemotherapy in November. Despite the setbacks, Kercheville maintains a positive attitude, focusing on her meditation practices, staying physically active and working as a coach while traveling regularly.
“It’s the process of challenging yourself by journaling, prioritizing yourself, and finding work-life balance even in the midst of a crisis. “It’s really difficult when you’re in a crisis to be able to shift into high gear and know what to do,” says Kercheville. “We’re all human, and we can stray a little, or things start to get messy. I want to visualize my cancer plan. We’re going to move on and I have places to go.
Peck and Kercheville know that many in the medical field refer to their practices as “psychobabble”, especially when applied to medical situations. But there is evidence that the state of mind can impact the body’s response. There is evidence that stress can suppress the body’s immune response and vice versa.
A Stanford University study published in Nature Human behavior showed that athletes who were randomly told they had a gene that made them tire easily had lower lung capacity and endurance than before they were given this information. The group who were told they had the gene to improve endurance ran further than before. The bottom line? The state of mind can impact the physical body for better or for worse.
Kercheville is still at the heart of her treatment, but with the help of her friend and the techniques she knows so well, she is looking to the future and remains hopeful. “You can be the victim, but you have a deadline to throw a pity party,” Kercheville says. “You have to get back on the path forward.”
Will is the editor of CEO magazine and editor of D CEO Healthcare. He wrote about health care…
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