Living a Rich Life with Stage IV Renal Cancer: Interview with Lawyer and New Author, Joel Stern

Q. Joel, tell us a bit about yourself, including your status now and a brief history of your work. Where were you in your life and career when you received your diagnosis?

For the great majority of my career, I was a corporate attorney leading large groups of legal and contract management personnel.  I started off at Allstate Insurance Company and then was General Counsel of a Sears/IBM telecommunications and data processing joint venture. I then moved onto Accenture where I was the Deputy General Counsel managing the Americas legal team, global contract management team and COO of the legal group.  After achieving everything I wanted to achieve in my legal career, I became the CEO of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms – a non-profit organization now made up of over 215 minority and women-owned law firms seeking the opportunity to compete for and win business from fortune 500 corporations.

I have always been passionate about DEI and frustrated by the lack of progress in the legal profession so decided to become the change in the world I wanted to happen and make DEI my full-time focus. I also thought it was critical for me (a white male) to play a role in this because change is not going to happen without everyone in the fight. Affinity groups are critical, but they can’t move the ball forward without the majority working towards the same goals.  I’m proud of the work I have done at NAMWOLF and for my DEI efforts generally but there is so much more to do.  Even though I am retired, I am still actively involved in DEI efforts by serving on an internal advisory board and as a mentor for Diversity Lab’s On-Ramp Fellowship program. 

In November of 2020, I was diagnosed with stage IV renal cell carcinoma (“RCC”).  I was having terrible back pain that I thought was just a continuation of history with my back. When they did an MRI of my spine, they found a large tumor destroying my iliac bone. When they biopsied the tumor, they concluded it was kidney cancer and I had several tumors up and down my spine from the back of my skull down to the hip. I also had a small kidney tumor that was causing no harm to my kidney.  Coincidentally and thankfully, the diagnosis came three months before my long-awaited retirement from NAMWOLF, so I was able to seamlessly transition my job duties to my successor and begin to focus on my battle with stage IV cancer.

Q What were the most important practices or supports that helped you cope with the diagnosis and treatment? 

The stages of dealing with cancer are real: shock, anger, sadness, anxiety, depression and then “I’m going to kick the you-know-what” out of this disease. Some get to the last stage sooner than others. It took me four months to get to that stage and I remain at the stage today. But for many, including me, you must get into some pretty dark areas before you can finally see the light.

Several things helped me get through this. First, I have an incredible family (“team Stern”) who refused to let me get too down in the dumps. They pushed me when I needed to be pushed and let me rest and wallow in self-pity when I needed to. Second, I have a great group of friends who were very helpful in supporting me. Third, having an excellent medical team composed of experts in the disease who combine great skill and bedside manner is critical. I’m a great believer in large teaching hospitals in big cities if possible. 

I also must thank my mother for teaching me how to fight this disease. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was five and fought the disease for 15 years as it spread throughout her body. She never complained about her plight, raised three sons while fighting, and fought until the very end. While I never appreciated her lessons while she was alive, my mother is a role model now that I am going through a very similar fight. I also love to write about my disease. Writing has been extremely cathartic for me and helps me deal with and express emotions that I would struggle to say verbally.  

Q. What made you decide to write a book to share your experience? 

I joined a Facebook community of stage IV RCC patients and caregivers and started to write “thankful Friday” posts every week. I shared the lessons I learned and how, in some ways, I am a better person now that I have this disease. The group suggested I compile the 18 months of weekly posts and put them in a book and my family supported it.

I decided to self-publish and donate all proceeds to kidney cancer non-profits. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who have written to me, saying they have gotten a lot out of the book even though they don’t have cancer. I know doctors around the country are recommending this book to their patients. 

I wrote the book for three reasons: (1) to inspire people dealing with life’s challenges not to give up and find the sun in an otherwise very cloudy day whether cancer or not; (2) to collect the lessons I learned as a reminder during tough times; and (3) to leave a gift for my three grandchildren so they would know who I was as a person in case I am not around when they are adults. 

Q. We often hear about the bad aspects of social media, but part of your story includes a support network you found on Facebook. Can you share a bit about why that group was so important to you? 

I was a very late joiner of Facebook and started post-COVID because I had more time on my hands. When I got my diagnosis, I used Facebook to see if there were communities that could be of help to me and was pleased to find several. The group I am currently in “Our Stage 4 Journey Renal Cell Carcinoma” is a community of kind and informative RCC patients and caregivers who love to share, listen, and help others.

I admit I am addicted to this group, but have found it extremely helpful in dealing with this disease.  We have members around the globe and I’m proud to say that we truly respect and love each other, and our primary motivations are to help people dealing with RCC. It is an incredible group of people who are passionate, caring, loving, helpful and are all warriors.  It’s a private community, but if you have kidney cancer or are a caregiver, please join.  

Q. You have written a lot about having a positive outlook in response to your diagnosis. This is one of the most impressive things I noticed in reading your book. Do you have any secrets or wisdom you can share about how to do this when life does not make it easy? 

While there may be no empirical evidence definitively confirming that having a positive attitude makes a difference with having a prolonged and quality life with a terminal disease, my doctor and many others believe having that positive attitude truly makes a difference. I agree. Having a positive attitude allows you to dream, make plans, get out of the house when you want to stay in bed all day, give the next new treatment a chance to work, not give up before it’s time and find opportunities to enjoy time with friends and family.

I believe dreaming is one of the most important pieces of dealing with this disease. If you are always negative, you can’t dream; if you don’t dream, you will not accomplish. And, assuming I am wrong and there is no correlation in attitude and response to diagnosis, what is the downside? Having this positive attitude has allowed me to have a great two plus years despite this disease. It has allowed me to watch my grandchildren grow up, take several vacations, go to my first Super Bowl, enjoy nature in ways that I never appreciated, and help others. 

There are a few things I do to try to maintain the positive attitude. They include:

  1. giving myself 30 minutes each day to think about the worst and be anxious, negative, angry or whatever. After thirty minutes, I don’t allow my brain to take me anywhere negative for the day.  It’s not realistic to expect that we will never have down moments, but being able to compartmentalize them into just thirty minutes each day helps. I do this at 1 AM every morning and then done for the day. 
  2. appreciating that anxiety for tomorrow just ruins today and that anxiety is almost always worse than reality. When nervous, I repeat this as a mantra.
  3. make a bucket list of things I want to accomplish in the next 12 months. This has been extremely helpful to me and I’m shocked at how many I have accomplished;
  4. living in the moment and focusing on today and tomorrow and not the negatives that may occur six months out.
  5. asking “why not?” versus “what if?” For example, “why not continue to beat this disease?” versus “what if I have progression?”
  6. continuing to write my “thankful Friday” posts every Friday and help people.
  7. focusing on my legacy and trying to ensure that I leave a positive imprint on the people I touch.
  8. finding joy in all the positives that happen in my life every day which can be as simple as spending time with my grandchildren, having lunch with a friend, or reading a good book.  
  9. journaling my thoughts and having an open book with respect to sharing.
  10. staying active both in DEI and the kidney cancer space. The Board I am on and speaking I do keep me going. 

Q. Are there any resources, besides your book, that you would like to share with our readers? 

Other than the Facebook community I already mentioned, two of my favorite books dealing with cancer are When Breath Becomes Air and Tuesdays with Morrie.  

Joel Stern is an attorney with a 25-year career as a general counsel attorney for corporations. From 2014-2021, he served as CEO of NAMWOLF and his service to that organization and DEI efforts were recognized when the organization created a scholarship in his name in 2021. Currently, Joel is successfully waging a two year plus war against Stage IV RCC and writing and speaking about the challenges of dealing with a terminal disease. He recently published a book titled, My Journey with Renal Cell Carcinoma: How to Make the Most of a Dire Diagnosis. Joel sits on the Boards of the Kidney Cancer Association and the Judy Nicholson Kidney Cancer Foundation. Joel resides in the Chicago area with his wife, Donna, and his now three grown up daughters, who all live within twenty minutes of Joel’s home, Brittany, Amanda, and Taylor. He is a grandfather to five-year-old Aidan Joel, sixteen-month-old Oliver, and seven-month-old Lucas.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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The Story Behind My First Children’s Book

When you start to indulge your creative tendencies, you become a connoisseur of ideas. Just like food or wine, you notice the variations in intensity. You instinctively understand that some ideas, like an avocado, have to be used immediately upon peak ripeness. But some, like dried mushrooms or good vinegar, can be stashed away to be used in small doses when the time is right. My first children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute (available for preorder now), was like the good vinegar that sat on the shelf of my mind until I had the right ingredients to turn it into something fantastic.

I had thought for a long time about writing a children’s book. I have several lawyer friends who have done so, including Becki Lee and Michelle Browning Coughlin who wrote the foreword for my book. The idea started to coalesce in 2021 when I wrote a post about the struggle of finding a quiet space to meditate in a house full of kids. At the time, I could see that this was fertile ground for a children’s story, but the idea was not quite ready to germinate.

The following year, I was distracted by transition to a new law firm and writing my first book. Clearly, I would not add another project to that situation, right? As it turns out, this is not how my brain saw it. The very week I gave notice at my old firm and as I was about to begin writing my book in earnest, I found myself with a spare 20 minutes before my daughters’ bedtime.

Perhaps it was that the book writing plans had primed the pump of creativity and churned old ideas up first. Perhaps I wanted a fun distraction at a stressful and emotional time. Or perhaps my brain just got on a roll making rhymes and couldn’t stop. Whatever the cause, I found myself opening a Word document and typing out a funny poem about a mom negotiating with her kids for a few quiet minutes so she could meditate.

I read it back to myself and saw instantly that, despite a few problems with meter and awkward rhymes, it wasn’t bad. Before doubt had time to set in, I sent it to a few of my adventurous and creative friends, including two that proved quite fortuitous. The first was my friend, Naomi L. Hudson, whose brain comes up with pictures like mine comes up with words. Naomi’s daughters had attended daycare with mine and we had been friends ever since. She had experience illustrating children’s books, so she gave me a green light and agreed to illustrate.

My other friend was J.W. Judge from Scarlet Oak Press. He had helped Becki Lee publish her books. I met him through LinkedIn and lawyer groups. His brain comes up with even more words than mine but his publishing company helps other lawyers easily self-publish books. He, too, gave me a thumbs up as well as much needed advice on rhyme, meter, length, and much more after Naomi finished the illustrations.

In the months that followed, I let Naomi work her magic. I gave her some general ideas about what I envisioned and suggested a few silly ideas, like adding my dog Lyra into the book because she has a funny habit of sitting on my lap when I meditate. Overall, though, I trusted Naomi to follow her instincts. This decision was a good one because it was fun to see how the pictures helped transform the poem into a story.

I’ve written before about how creativity doesn’t always require lengthy and uninterrupted blocks of time. Sometimes a few minutes here and there, as you juggle other life demands and projects, is all you need. As Naomi and I suggest in Mommy Needs a Minute, this is true of mindfulness and self-care practices but it can also be true of our creative efforts.

Ideas can sometimes take time to germinate in our minds until they are strong enough to take root. This is why making mental space through practices like meditation or exercise or journaling can make such a difference. We need space so we can clearly see when an idea is emerging and trust ourselves enough to let it come out.

And when that happens, it certainly helps to have some creative and adventurous friends around to help you turn your little seed of an idea into something fantastic. I’m lucky that I had both and that Mommy Needs a Minute will be out in the world very soon.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Turning Someday Into Now: My Guest Post about Writing a Book on Above the Law

As I’ve written here before, writing is one of my favorite pastimes. At this point, I consider it a mental health practice. Quite literally, it helps me clean out my mind, process life, and connect more deeply with my world and community.

Even so, I had a lot of doubts when I started writing about things that weren’t related to my law practice. I had ideas that I should devote most of my mental energy to building my law practices and serving clients and than anything leftover should go to my kids.

I’m no math genius, but anyone can immediately puzzle out the problem with this theory: it didn’t leave much for me. Now, you may not consider writing a very restful but for me it was. It let my brain and heart gradually stretch like you stretch your legs after a long trip. Though I read and write a lot for my law practice, I don’t do it the same way I write in a blog or social media post.

It didn’t take long until this little hobby of mine turned into something more. After a few years, I let the idea emerge that I wanted to write a book. Early on, I was confronted with many doubts, such as:

  1. I didn’t have time.
  2. I wouldn’t stick with it.
  3. Nobody will care.
  4. I had more important things to do.
  5. It is too much work.

What did experience teach me? That these doubts were all wrong. If you want to learn what I discovered, check out this new guest post I wrote for the partnership between MothersEsquire and Above the Law.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Being a Badass: Interview on The Write Approach Podcast

“You’re doing something wrong. You are about to do something TERRIBLE and you need to just stop.”

How many times has the voice of fear said this to you?

Fear for me used to sound like this about almost everything. If I am being honest, it still sounds like this sometimes.

So what changed? The simple answer is that I learned to manage it and see fear in a new way.

Mindfulness and self-compassion helped me break fear down into pieces – thoughts, physical sensations, emotions – and respond with more skill to each one.

As I discuss, this is an essential skills for lawyers handling big cases or anyone who wants to get more creative.

In addition, my meditation practice helped me get some mental space so I could recognize ideas for writing in the midst of all my other thoughts.

Ultimately, this is how I increased my own confidence, started writing and engaging on social media, and ultimately published my first book.

If you have experienced anything like this or are interested in writing, this episode of The Write Approach podcast with authors Barbara Hinske and Jeremy Richter is for you.

You can find it at the link above, most podcast outlets, or watch it on YouTube here:

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Can Mindfulness Help You Find Polaris? Our Founder’s Interview with Author and Coach Bob Levant

It should come as no great surprise that someone who loves writing enough to have written a book and founded a blog loves to talk about writing. But do you what’s even better? Talking about writing with another writer.

This week, I got to do that two times in one day. On Wednesday I recorded a podcast for The Write Approach podcast with my lawyer friend and fellow author, Jeremy Richter. (Stay tuned for that one. It should be released soon.) That evening, I also got to talk to coach, author, and former attorney Bob Levant for the Iron Advocate Mindset Virtual Book Club.

The conversation with Bob was great because, like me, he’s also a fan of mindfulness. He does yoga regularly and explores the concept in his own book, Finding Polaris. Since as Bob describes, he covers the topic in less of a “deep dive” than my book, we get into some of the finer points in this interview.

During the interview, we discuss things like loneliness, managing fear and anxiety, and break down why mindfulness and compassion can help with these things. I had such a good time talking with Bob and reading his book that I wanted to share the interview with you here.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Tortured No More: How Drinking Less Alcohol Helped Me Write My First Book

Our culture has this trope of the long-suffering tortured artist. There’s this idea that creativity comes from strife and is fueled by addiction and misery. I don’t say things like this often, but I want that idea to die.

First, it’s not true. Sure, there are many wonderful artists who struggled with or even lost their lives or careers to addiction, but there are also many, such as Anne Lamott, Stephen King, or the musician, Riopy, who went into recovery and thrived professionally after. Second, the idea is dangerous because it suggests that creative living is off limits to people who want to have a happy life.

I get upset about both issues because I experienced the opposite of what the trope claims. I experienced an extreme uptick in my creativity after limiting alcohol. In addition, the expansion of my creative efforts has resulted in more happiness, not more suffering.

This year I hit a major life milestone: I wrote and published my first book. I didn’t quite sell as many copies as Stephen King (yet) and I admit that I didn’t say anything nearly so perfect as Anne Lamott did in Bird by Bird. But, by god, I wrote a damn book. I wrote a book while practicing law, raising kids, managing a blog, and surviving two job changes in my household at the same time. I wrote a book even though I could have easily continued to think about it, as I had done for many years before.

Like the trope, this book had its origins in some suffering. It came from my own struggles with mental health and it was inspired by some of the darkest moments in my life. In addition, so many steps that led to me writing the book came out of the angst, grief, and upheaval of the pandemic. Oddly, one of those steps was the realization that I had relied too much on alcohol during the initial months of social distancing.

This is where the trope of the suffering and addicted artist explodes. Other than my initial bout with shame and denial, I didn’t have a torturous experience addressing my alcohol usage. Instead, I implemented some reasonable limits and supports, noticed an improvement, felt good, so kept going. At no point in the decision-making process did I consider limiting drinking because I wanted to be “more productive.”

That’s exactly what happened though. No, I didn’t get more productive in the breakneck way. I didn’t sacrifice sleep, or fun, or time away from my computer. Instead, I found a few extra hours here and there at night and on weekends where I felt like writing.

Think about it. When do most of us drink? Nights and weekends. When do most lawyers have free time to write and pursue personal hobbies or goals? You got it. Nights and weekends. When I started limiting how frequently I drank, I created more pockets of time in which I felt energetic and clear-minded enough to write. And, when things calmed down a bit and I had longer stretches, I could reliably bank a few thousand words at a time until I had a book.

Perhaps this story isn’t as interesting as the long-suffering artist, but it’s a whole lot more hopeful and in more ways than one. It suggests that steps to major life goals might, for any of us, be just around the corner. It suggests that doing the everyday basics to take care of oneself may be one way to reach the highest heights.

And here’s the best thing. Maybe I was a bit of a suffering artist in the early days of the pandemic. Maybe I used alcohol somewhat to avoid the suffering I believed I couldn’t handle. When I decided to make a change, the suffering didn’t swallow me up. Instead, it forced me to grow and make space for something new. It’s easy to get caught up in our habits or the tropes of identity, but it’s possible to break out of them. Even better, it feels really good when you do.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Book Review: The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

This month I am focusing on debunking myths relating to mindfulness, compassion, and mental health. After all my years of meditation, I still find myself holding onto a few myths every now and then. One of those myths is that stress is bad for you.

As a lawyer, I have been informally trained to know that stress is a scary thing. The lawyer mental health crisis tells me I have to “manage” my stress. Family, friends, and doctors will tell me to “limit” my stress. And even in my training to become a meditation, yoga, and compassion teacher, I learned that stress can impede us physically and mentally.

But, then I came upon a book by Kelly McGonigal with a title that proclaims that stress is good for me. Her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I knew. The thing is, though, that I adore Kelly McGonigal’s work.

She explains scientific concepts in a simple and engaging way that shows she really understands them. She does this so well that, in turn, I feel like I really understand the concepts too. I thoroughly enjoyed The Willpower Instinct and The Joy of Movement and, despite it being only in audio form, learned a ton from her course on compassion.

So, even though the title made me skeptical, I decided to give The Upside of Stress a try. Guess what? It totally changed my mind. And when I say “changed” I don’t mean that it made me suddenly welcome and enjoy all the stress in my life. Instead, it refined my understanding of what stress meant and how it actually worked.

Most of us know the “fight/flight/freeze” reaction as the stress response, as if it was the only response to stress. In Upside, however, McGonigal explains that this is only one possible response to stress and it usually occurs in dire threat situations. This is when stress can harm us physically, impede our performance, and even lead to bad behavior and aggression.

On the other hand, humans can respond to stress in other ways, including the “tend and befriend” or “challenge” responses. In other words, we can learn to care for and forge connections to deal with stress or see a stressful situation as a challenge that can present opportunities. When we respond to stress in these ways, research shows that it can improve performance, cause us to behave more ethically and collaboratively, and create courage, motivation, and energy.

Now, of course, the skeptics out there are likely to wonder why we hear so many dire warnings about stress if it is good for us. McGonigal acknowledges that stress can be bad, even devastating for some of us, but she explains that the popular discourse of stress is often misleading.

One thing that is often left out of these discussions is that our reactions to and mindset about stress can determine how it affects us. That is why so much of The Upside of Stress is devoted to changing the audience’s mind about stress, because just acknowledging that stress can have an upside is the first step to healthy stress management.

When I read this part of the book, I was ever more surprised because I realized I already knew it or had at least experienced it. I had not officially accepted the idea that stress could be good for me, but I had learned through meditation to respond to stress differently.

Rather than ignore, evade, or fight stress, I had learned to regard it as a normal part of life, to accept it as human, and to treat it with care. In other words, meditation had helped me more frequently invoke a challenge or tend-and-befriend response to stress. As McGonigal argues, it didn’t make the stress go away but it made it easier to bear.

If, like most lawyers, you want some help managing stress, consider checking out The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. If the only thing it does is change your mind about stress, that alone could be enough to change your life for the better.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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