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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