Two hundred and forty-seven days. That’s how long it’s been since Kansas City Chiefs defender Eric Berry went from beginning his journey against cancer to, remarkably, reporting back for training camp. After their game against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 20, it was discovered that a lump in Berry’s chest was not just an injury from the field, but rather a much larger affliction: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Fast forward to this week on July 28 when Berry addressed the media after practice on his first day back. He sat at a table with his father, James, and his mother, Carol. He took his audience through a journey that none of us had any insight on, until now. Berry described the tears, the struggles, the challenges of six rounds of chemotherapy (Dec. 10 – May 13), and the goal of just trying to do five push-ups a day.
Berry also talked about his decision to take chemotherapy directly into his veins so that he could still work out and stay in shape for football. As a result, his veins now have track marks all over them, but Berry knew that was going to happen if he chose that option. This is a person who amazingly gained a pound during treatment.
After hearing the initial news, many rallied around Berry to support him on his journey, not knowing how long it would last. At the same time, I couldn’t but help feel a personal connection to him, only because I had begun a similar journey as well. On Nov. 20 – the last game Berry would play that season – I had just undergone my seventh (of 19) radiation treatments for testicular cancer. Of course Berry is an elite athlete playing at the highest level. My athletic career has peaked at adult soccer leagues and corporate challenge events. However, we do have several things in common: being young, healthy, fit individuals, who didn’t see it coming, but yet tried to attack cancer with the same vigor, and having an overwhelming support system behind us.
In June, I had my second round of checkups to see how the treatment and my body’s resolve were fighting off cancer. Turns out my blood levels were looking great and so far, there was no emergence of additional lymph nodes that looked like trouble. Still, I have four more years of checkups just to be sure. Later that month, on June 22, Berry also received good news at his checkup: he was cancer free.
Just 36 days later, incredibly, he was reporting to training camp for another NFL season. Only this time, he was starting the year as not the biggest, but perhaps the toughest player in the league.
There are many great takeaways from Berry’s last nine months. Sticking with the theme of this blog, here some great communication learnings stemming from the messaging he provided upon his return:
- Address the Issue Up Front: Rather than let any questions linger, Berry and the Chiefs smartly held a press conference for media on Day 1. This helped everyone hear from him, ask the questions they needed, and to collectively begin moving forward with the season. Most importantly, it let his audience know that he is okay.
- Include Your Support System: Berry included two of his main champions of support: his mom and his dad. Having them also describe what they went through helped to provide additional perspectives and insights into the positive network they helped create for him during treatment.
- It Can Pay Off to Get Personal: Berry opened himself up on his personal feelings, thoughts, and struggles during treatment. In doing so, he humanized himself even more, connected with his audience, and perhaps whether he knew it or not, helped others cope who may also be facing similar challenges.
- Let Your Story Provide Natural Speaking Points: As far as Berry knew, he was just telling his audience his experience over the past nine months. However, in telling that story, the audience heard so much more. They heard a message of shock, concern, struggle, and being scared. But they also heard a message of support, strength, resilience, and recovery. Yes, there are times when prepared “talking points” are certainly needed, but sometimes the most impactful points are ones that others interpret for themselves.
Finally, many who heard or have read Berry’s words on Tuesday took away some of the same things, but they also most likely each took away something different. Personally, four words stuck out to me that I feel not only summarize his journey, but that I can use as I continue on my own. They serve as a final takeaway no matter what struggles or obstacles any of us may face in life. When in doubt, just remember: “Fear Nothing, Attack Everything.”