Copenhaver is a Millennial Mentor, Amazon #1 Best Selling Author, Host of “The Changemaker Podcast”, Keynote Speaker, Executive Coach, Former Mayor of Augusta, and Founding Partner of #StartsWithUs.
Throughout my adult life, I have sought to use every platform and opportunity that has come my way to build bridges and inspire people to rally behind causes beyond any one individual. I committed to this journey while serving nine years in office as mayor of the city of Augusta, through writing a bestselling book on servant leadership, leading countless speaking engagements and launching “The Changemaker Podcast.”
Most recently, I’ve also had the blessing of serving as a movement partner with Starts With Us, a nonpartisan movement dedicated to overcoming the cultural and political polarization in our country. I believe the greatest opportunity I’ve been given is to help heal the divides in our families, our communities and our nation. This belief has taken on a new meaning on April 19, when I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
After dealing with laryngitis for several weeks, Dr. Glenn Owen sent me in for a CT scan. Dealing with prolonged voice issues, I never once considered cancer could possibly be the cause. After receiving the results of the scan, Glenn asked to meet me at our house to discuss them, which definitely got my attention. He proceeded to tell me that the scan detected a potentially cancerous tumor and an endoscopy to get a biopsy was the next step. The gravity of the situation hit me immediately.
My first thought after hearing the word cancer was, “Am I going to die?” I imagine that feeling is not too unusual for anyone in my shoes. Hearing the news was actually easier than having to share it with my wife Malisa just a few minutes later.
The days Malisa and I spent together leading up to the endoscopy were an emotional rollercoaster filled with uncertainty, doubt, laughter and tears. On the day of the procedure, my emotions somehow began to sort themselves out as I experienced an unusual sense of peace and calm. When I was diagnosed with cancer Dr. Matt Cranford, my gastroenterology consultant, expressed a sense of optimism that I would get through this, giving me my first sense of hope. Two days later, Malisa and I met with Dr. Jeremy Wells, our oncologist, to begin planning treatment. During that week, my thoughts almost seamlessly shifted from, “How will we deal with this?” to “How can we use this to help people?”
Having lost my mother, Jane, and my brother, Andy, to cancer, I’ve always seen the disease as a common ground issue which everyone can relate to in some way, shape or form. Whose life has not been touched by the disease, whether it be personally or through a friend or family member? Simply put, cancer does not discriminate.
The wheels began to turn in my head on ways to leverage my platforms to raise awareness and funds to help others. I called Al Dallas, a dear friend who currently serves as Chief of Staff at the Georgia Cancer Center, to brainstorm ideas. The center’s annual “Unite in the Fight” cancer walk was approaching, and Al suggested that we start a team. For the first time since my journey began, I didn’t feel powerless. I had a goal and purpose in mind.
Seeing the tangible, positive results of a support system rallying together, I am disheartened thinking about the people whose support systems have been severed by extreme politics and social issues entrenching our country. It’s sobering to consider that in a recent New York Times and Siena College poll, nearly one in five voters (19 percent) said that politics hurt their friendships or family relationships.
For me, extreme polarization is a cancer in and of itself. It infects individuals, families, and communities throughout our nation by breaking down the healthy sense of interconnectedness our society so desperately needs. By allowing polarization caused by extreme political rhetoric, social media algorithms, and sensationalist media to overshadow our humanity and connections with friends, families, and our communities we foster conditions ripe for the spread of the insidious disease.
Organizing the walk became a family and friend affair. Malisa and I set $10,000 as a fundraising goal and, always competitive in our nature, began to work our email lists to recruit participants and donors. Our niece, who also works at the cancer center, took the lead recruiting our team of walkers. Several of our friends with Showpony, a local creative firm, produced a limited-edition team tee shirt with all proceeds going to benefit the cancer center.
The spring weather was beautiful on the morning of the walk and a record crowd gathered to support each other’s loved ones was a joyous display of solidarity. The diversity of the crowd and the colors worn to support various types of cancer created a kaleidoscope reflecting the fabric of our community. People shared smiles, hugs and stories as together we walked a mile and a half. In that moment, we were all bound together by the power of community and a collective focus to fight a disease much larger than any one of us, individually.
Our team raised over $53,000, and the event collected a total of more than $116,000. The campaign’s tremendous success struck a chord when I began to reflect on how we got here. While watching everything come together, it became apparent to me: the bridges I spent nine years building as mayor and the sea of goodwill I sought to create by leading through love and compassion, remained virtually intact eight years after I left office. I have always believed that when you are seeking common ground, there are times you must become the common ground you seek. While in office, I focused on being a unifying force for citizens from all walks of life. Through my diagnosis I once again found a unifying force in joining others on the frontlines in the battle against cancer.
In life we all face trials and tribulations as no one is immune to the human condition. We do not have to agree on our political or social stances, nor is that what we should do. A healthy competitive spirit and diversity in thought is what drives our growth. But we should lead with humility and open mindedness to perspectives that we may not have experienced. Life is about choices and placing my faith, friends, family and community above my own personal politics is a very easy, and healthy, choice to make.
Healing isn’t a process that occurs in a vacuum. My healing process didn’t start when I entered my treatment protocol but rather when I was afforded the opportunity to help support, and be supported by, a community of survivors committed to joining together each year to celebrate and honor all those impacted by this disease. For me, it’s a great comfort and an ongoing part of my healing journey to know that this is a community I will always be a part of and that no walls will ever come between us.