How To Live Free By Breaking Through Perfectionism

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 Speaker Seun Adebiyi

I’m training to represent Nigeria – whose tropical climate has never seen a flake of snow – as its first ever Winter Olympic athlete.

That's me loading cargo onto an MD-88 (small jet) at Atlanta International Airport. I decided to work for Delta as a seasonal/summer employee so I can get free or reduced flights to skeleton competitions. I don't have any sponsors, so every penny saved on travel is a penny that can go towards my training.

That’s me loading cargo onto an MD-88 (small jet) at Atlanta International Airport. I decided to work for Delta as a seasonal/summer employee so I can get free or reduced flights to skeleton competitions. I don’t have any sponsors, so every penny saved on travel is a penny that can go towards my training.

Without any sponsors, I work as an airline baggage handler to cover my training expenses. The guy with a Yale Law degree on his knees in the belly of a Boeing 737 stacking suitcases? Yeah, that’s me. It might sound crazy, but as a first-generation immigrant who grew up beneath the poverty line with a single black mom in rural Alabama, I’m no stranger to humble work. We were so poor that even the kids from the projects made fun of my clothing and haircuts (courtesy of my mom and a pair of scissors). I eventually learned to compensate for my inferiority complex by winning…at all costs.
By the time I was 14, I was ranked 4th in the United States for my age group in swimming. I had broken the Nigerian record in the 200 meter freestyle and was on track to compete in the 2000 Olympic Games. Three months before the opening ceremonies, I became paralyzed from the waist down in a training accident. Without the validation of athletic success to prop up my self-esteem, I went into a vicious tailspin that took me down a dark alley of drugs, alcohol and attempted suicide. I didn’t snap out of it until my college roommate blew his head off with a shotgun.
Searching for a reason to live, I began training for the 2004 Olympics with the club team at the University of Pittsburgh. I dropped 75 pounds in nine months, only to miss the Olympic “B” qualifying time by one tenth of a second. In my third year at Yale Law School, I decided to give the Olympics another shot, this time in a high-speed, high-risk winter sport called the skeleton: like the luge, but headfirst. Nigeria had never been to the Winter Olympics in any sport, and I’d never tried the skeleton before.
SkeletonSound like long odds? That’s not even the half of it. One week after my 26th birthday – and eight months out from the 2010 Winter Olympics – I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and myeloproliferative disorder. Only a bone marrow transplant could save my life, but as an African-American, my odds of finding a compatible donor were less than 17%. Suddenly the improbable seemed impossible.
With only months to live, I partnered with the world’s largest non-profit bone marrow donor organization, Delete Blood Cancer (DKMS), to recruit over 10,000 new donors and hold the first-ever bone marrow donor drive in Nigeria. I chose Nigeria for two reasons. First, my odds of finding a match were highest in my own ethnic group. Second, blacks are underrepresented in the international donor pool, a key hurdle that keeps thousands of minority patients from finding a genetically compatible donor. Nigeria is the most populous and genetically diverse country in Africa, so their donors could potentially help millions around the world. It made sense for me, and it made sense for others.
However, as luck would have it, on the day of my flight to Lagos, I found a match in the U.S. It was literally the biggest lottery win of my life! But there was a catch: doing the transplant would mean postponing my trip to Nigeria. I had to decide which was more important: saving my own life or holding a drive that would one day save the lives of others?
This was the moment of truth. I knew my decision in that moment would shape my character forever. That was when I finally broke free of the inferiority complex that had shackled me to the mindset of “winning at all costs.” For perhaps the first time in my life, I saw with clarity that success is not measured by wealth, prestige, and accolades, but by one’s impact on the lives of others. Against doctor’s orders, I boarded the plane to Lagos, signing up over 300 donors in a single afternoon. Then I had my transplant and have been cancer free for six years.
Everything changed after that. I left my prestigious job on Wall Street to launch the first Bone Marrow Donors Registry in Nigeria (BMRN) in 2012. Two years later, I partnered with the American Cancer Society to develop the Global Scholars Program, which mentors and financially supports young professionals from developing countries to become effective cancer advocates in their communities.
My next goal is to build a pan-African bone marrow donor registry and cord blood bank, so that patients just like me can have a second chance at life. I also still dream of carrying the Nigerian flag in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics one day. We all have a choice to pursue our dreams. It’s never too late to start, and it’s always worth it. Break through, and live free!
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Seun Adebiyi, on breaking through from perectionismIn his TEDMED talk, cancer survivor and Olympic hopeful Seun Adebiyi astounds us with stories from his quest to conquer the impossible – and what he has learned about himself along the way.

Artistic Humor for the Soul: Q&A with Bob Carey

Bob Carey is the photographer and subject of the “Tutu Project.” This series of stunningly silly videos and still self-portraits was originally launched to cheer up his wife, Linda, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and later went viral. He spoke about the power of humor to help cancer survivors.

Photographer and cancer activist Bob Carey at TEDMED 2014

Photographer and cancer activist Bob Carey at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

Based on the viral nature of the Tutu Project and the impact it’s had, our goal has been to find opportunities to continue to share the images and story, and not only within the breast cancer community. I feel that it’s important to share creative ideas that use art and humor as a means to help live with the many challenges in life. When TEDMED asked me to speak, not only was I excited, I felt it was the perfect opportunity and audience to share my work.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

It matters now as there will always be challenges in life– and inspiration can impact people every day. I hope that my talk will inspire others to see that there are many approaches–sometimes unusual, unexpected or creative– one can use to cope.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The speaker coaches were kind and compassionate, not that I wouldn’t expect that to a certain degree, but I bonded with them and with that, felt empowered to speak with my tutu on– a first for me. Another meaningful connection was with one of the speakers. The staff was wonderful as were the attendees. It seemed that although the subject matter was different, we were all looking for new and creative ways to approach problems.

3 Deadly Myths That Masqueraded as Knowledge in Women’s Health

by Betsy NabelPresident of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor.

Knowledge in science is something we never fully grasp because it is continually reshaped by new information. Information – such as the fact that women and men are different, from cells to selves – doesn’t change. Information is bounded in certainty. But we are at a particular disadvantage when the information that serves as the foundation of our limited knowledge is itself shaky. In the case of women’s health, myth and misinformation have been rampant and deadly.

Women's health leader Betsy Nabel at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED].

“Humility is the secret ingredient that unveils truth.” Women’s health leader Betsy Nabel at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED].

No myth has been more pernicious, or has cost as many lives, as the one that might easily have killed a patient of my own. It was 1983, and I was a young, hotshot cardiology resident, who of course, “knew everything.”  One night, a 32-year-old woman arrived in the emergency room where I worked. She described vague symptoms: aches, fatigue, a low-grade fever – nothing terribly specific. I ran some tests, didn’t find anything telling, and sent her home with Tylenol.  Two days later she came back with a full-blown heart attack.

The problem was, I knew that was impossible. I had been trained by the best, and the best had taught me what the best had taught them: Heart disease was a man’s disease, and the primary symptom of heart attacks was chest pain, which my patient did not have.

Thank goodness, that woman survived.  Her case has driven my career-long commitment to understand the difference between men and women’s health, and to raise awareness of women’s heart health in particular. Today we know not merely that women die of heart attacks, but, crucially, that women experience an entirely different profile of symptoms than men do.

In that case, we simply didn’t know what we were certain we did know. The same was true of a second myth that scarred women’s health for quite some time: that hormone replacement therapy improved women’s health. The model was simple: as women enter menopause, estrogen levels drop, and health problems ensue. The solution seemed intuitive and logical: replace the estrogen.

For years, the medical community relied on dogma — received knowledge — that these treatments worked.  Two in five menopausal or post-menopausal women received hormone replacement, in part to prevent heart disease.

But then scientists challenged the known, by putting this “knowledge” to the test. A multiyear, multimillion-dollar study by the National Institutes of Health – the Women’s Health Initiative (which is the brainchild of then-NIH Director Dr. Bernadette Healy) – examined more than 160,000 women and made a startling discovery. Not only did hormone replacement therapy not prevent heart disease; it actually caused it.

That visionary study — undertaken, significantly, by the public sector at sustained public expense — has saved countless women’s lives.

Today, a third myth is killing women, and this one remains enshrouded in misinformation. Just like we used to think heart disease was a man’s disease, today we think of breast cancer as the most important women’s cancer. Of course, in many ways it is. But lung cancer kills more women than any other cancer — nearly 200 every day, most within a year of diagnosis.

Yet, perhaps because of the stigma associated with lung cancer stemming from an inaccurate perception that the only way to get lung cancer is to smoke – which is especially wrong when it comes to women — research in this disease is chronically under-funded, especially measured by the harm it causes to individuals and families.

Women who have never smoked appear to be at greater risk of developing lung cancer than men who have never smoked. Of the 20,000-25,000 nonsmokers diagnosed with the disease each year, more than 60 percent are women.  Women also develop lung cancer at an earlier age than men. Yet, unlike breast and prostate cancer, for example, there is no widely accepted screening test for lung cancer.

Lung cancer thus presents a double myth: first, that it is solely a smoker’s disease; and second, that it is a cancer women don’t need to worry about.

These myths are a compelling reminder of the need for researchers and clinicians alike to treat men and women as what common sense tells us they are: different. That means clinical trials need to impose a gender lens at every stage of discovery and explore the unique effects of diseases and therapies on women as well as on men, which will lead to better health for both sexes.

An oft-shunned word, ignorance, carries great importance when we consider it as the driver of scientific inquiry, and thus, the molder of new knowledge. Yet when myths are widely believed to be facts, ignorance can kill. We owe half the world’s population much more than that.

Elizabeth Nabel, the President of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, shared a personally revealing story on the TEDMED stage that pointed to how the limits of knowledge can be a weakness and how accepting our ignorance can be a strength. We are honored she has written an original piece for the TEDMED blog.

Claim your experience: Beyond the survivor identity

In her 2014 TEDMED talk, Debra Jarvis, a writer and former hospital chaplain, offered a witty and daring look at the way that survivors of disease and trauma can achieve new levels of emotional and psychological healing. We caught up with Debra in between her sabbatical adventures in Europe.

Debra Jarvis, Cancer Survivor

Debra Jarvis at TEDMED 2014, Photo: Sandy Huffaker

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

As a chaplain I always walk the line between science and spirituality. I knew that I had a unique perspective as a hospital chaplain, as a family member of someone with cancer and as a patient myself. So I had seen the issue of survivorship from all these different perspectives and knew TEDMED was a perfect venue to give a voice to the many patients who talked to me over the years. I spoke for a lot of people in that talk.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

This talk matters now because the pressure to be a “participating” survivor is high and although I think funding cancer research is important, taking on this identity can keep people stuck.  Although the context of my talk is specific — taking on “cancer survivor” as an identity — I hope  that listeners/viewers will realize that the problem is universal. Taking on any kind of “victim/survivor” identity is deadly. It can be cancer, it can be a car crash, it can be being dumped by a lover! My suggestion remains the same: Process your feelings, mine the experience for all it’s worth and then move on. Keep growing. Keep becoming.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The best thing for me about TEDMED was being around so many people who are using their power for good. As Spiderman’s uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And so many of the speakers there were using their brains, education and energy to find solutions to some of the world’s thorniest problems. They are taking on great responsibilities, and that is inspiring.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

“Claim your experience. Don’t let it claim you.”

Anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?   

I wish I had time to talk about knowing the difference between being truly wounded and simply not getting what you want. The latter is your ego stamping its little foot and whining. I would have also loved to talk about what it would be like to not carry a wound, but instead carry a scar. A scar is so much stronger than the original tissue! And finally, I wish I could have included why I think we get so excited about surviving: It’s because we are so afraid of death. It’s like, “You’re a survivor!” but the unspoken thought is, “For now.” Because ultimately, no one survives. Americans in particular are loathe to face this. I would have loved to talk about teaching our children not to fear death and to give some great examples I’ve seen of how to do that.