How Stephen Covey saved my life

  • Published
  • By Col. Ellen Fiebig
  • ARPC Director of Assignments
On Sept. 22, 2000, the doctor said to me, "Yes. The biopsy came back positive, ductal carcinoma. You have breast cancer. We need to get you into surgery right away. It appears that the size of the tumor categorizes this as Stage II. We will need to perform a dissection of the lymph nodes to confirm Stage II; meaning that it's already spread to your lymph nodes. Now, let's see what my calendar looks like." 

Just like that. He's looking at his calendar and I'm wondering why he's talking to me. This is a mistake. I'm only 38. The test results are wrong. 

I learned later that this is the normal first reaction--denial. Phase 2 is acceptance and tears. Phase 3, I learned is where patients diverge. Here is the time to make a choice. Phase 3 can be: 1. Angry, but positive. I'm going to fight. 2. Angry, negative. Everyone should drop what they're doing and center on me. 3. Hopelessness. I give up. I feel sorry for myself. 

I chose Stephen Covey. I chose Stephen Covey for my family. What does that mean? If any of you have read the book or attended the "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" seminar, you could clearly see how this applies. The 7 Habits are so powerful that they can clearly change not only your professional life, but in my case, my personal life. Here's what they are and how I applied them for a very important mission -- the fight for my life:

1. Be Proactive. I did heavy research on treatments, experimental tests and even ended up applying and was accepted for an experimental treatment. I became an expert on chemotherapy regimes like Adriamycin, Taxotere and procedures such as sentinel dissection. (Studies today show my experimental treatment provides better survival rates.) 

2. Begin with the End in Mind. During each chemotherapy session, while that IV bag dripped poison into my body, I visualized myself playing with my grandchildren. This gave me personal strength and I realized later that my positive attitude helped the women sitting with me during those sessions. We laughed together, talked about our families and they too had developed this vision. 

3. Put First Things First. Covey teaches us how to prioritize and concentrate on the big rocks. My calendar had to be shuffled. Exercise became a big rock. Exercise helped me cope with chemotherapy and prevented lymphedema, a side effect that can begin during or after breast cancer treatment. It isn't life threatening, but it can last a long time. This condition involves swelling of the soft tissues of the arm or hand. Studies show that exercise increases survival rates by 30 percent. Housecleaning became a tiny pebble. 

4. Think Win-Win. I really wanted to blast the hospital for not having enough information for military members, submit an IG complaint, but realized this would be lose-lose behavior. Instead, I put together a pamphlet for military members on what treatments are available and how you can get free wigs!

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. What cancer patients don't understand is that this is much harder on the people you love. My husband was quite, moody and really having a hard time with this. Covey teaches listening techniques and when I finally understood the stress that my husband was going through, we were able to talk more and make it a team fight. 

6. Synergize. Applying the first five habits resulted in synergistic communication with my family. Synergy is a reward. 

7. Sharpen the Saw. Covey says habit 7 is personal PC. It's about renewing your physical, spiritual, mental and social or emotional dimensions. I still exercise today, continue to perform self-screenings, revisit goals, help other women diagnosed with breast cancer and enjoy a wonderful marriage and family.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 40,000 people die from breast cancer in the United States each year. Globally, according to the World Conference on Breast Cancer, 400,000 people die annually from this disease. And it's not just women; the National Cancer Institute estimated new cases to be 178,480 women and 2,030 men. 

The best defense against breast cancer is a good offense! Stephen Covey's 7 Habits were the right tools to plan my offense. This offense includes regular screening tests, such as an annual mammogram and a breast exam during your annual checkup, allowing for early detection when it's most treatable!