One job interview stands out in David Downs’ memory. It was the final interview after four long rounds. He waited nervously in a large conference room before a senior executive came in and sat across the table.
“I have one question for you,” the executive began. “When you drive to the airport and you’re running late, do all of the traffic lights turn red or green?”
Downs gave his answer and left, a bit puzzled. Later that afternoon, he called the executive back. “I asked him what he was getting at with the question,” Downs says. “Did the fact I said that the lights turn green mean I consider myself lucky?” The man told him, Sure, more or less.
Downs got the job.
“He told me the question was really about how I interpret life,” says Downs, SEP ’15, who is from New Zealand. “The lights really don’t turn green for me, I just perceive it that way.”
Positive thinking has helped Downs with more than just landing jobs. The outlook — amplified in part by the year he spent exploring the power of optimism as a participant in Stanford Executive Program: Be a Leader Who Matters — would later color his struggles after he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2017.
“In SEP we did strategy and finance, of course, but a lot of the program was around concepts of neuroeconomics, and the idea that you can change neural pathways by how you think and act,” says Downs, a former professional comedian. “Reframing the situation and putting yourself in control — that’s brain elasticity at work.”
Downs applied that same line of thinking to his cancer treatment. When he realized that his three teenage sons were saddened to see him only at the hospital, Downs transformed his room into a new holiday destination every week. For the “room of lights,” Downs donned a French moustache and a beret and chalked a recipe for “Le Chemo” on a menu board. He supplied doctors and attendants with stick-on facial hair; all visitors were required to show up in costume.
Negotiating, Receiving Support
Downs documented his humorous approach to living with a chronic illness in an ongoing New Zealand newspaper column, “A Mild Touch of the Cancer.” He penned 60 articles during his 14 months of treatment. One was a deep dive into the science of taste buds after treatment caused his favorite sense to evaporate. Another was about seeking counseling with his wife and children. Downs shared with readers that, after 12 unsuccessful rounds of chemo, he had about a year to live. His only option was a clinical trial called CAR-T therapy, a process of re-engineering more immune cells to fight the cancer. Downs was a match for the CAR-T cell therapy and tried to stay positive when that good news came with a caveat.
“It was quite a week,” Downs says. “I’d been told I had a year to live. Then it was, there’s an option — yay! And then I realized that to pay for it, we’d need to sell our home.”
The treatment was in the U.S., which meant that Downs would have to pay out of pocket (the treatment wasn’t available in New Zealand). The bill was estimated at $1 million, plus travel and accommodations.
Downs kept humor and optimism as his strongest defense and took a shot at bargaining with the billing department at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He made sure they were privy to his plans to check out a Chicago hospital’s offer to perform the same treatment. They knocked the price to $750,000. When Downs also pointed out that, as a self-payer, he would be saving the hospital from working with an insurance company, they knocked an additional 25% off the total.
“As a naive Kiwi coming from the other side of the world, I didn’t know you could negotiate with the hospital,” Downs laughs. “It was like buying a car!”
People across the world began rooting for him. Friends in New Zealand started a crowdfunding website, while others hosted a benefit comedy show. When Downs’ SEP cohort discovered his blog, they jumped to donate whatever they could think up for a silent auction. One offered a tour of his factory, another a week in her Paris flat, another a chance to rent his yacht in Brazil.
“My classmates came in and were a huge support, not only financially, but through hundreds and hundreds of messages,” Downs says. “My family and I didn’t feel alone.” All the fundraising came to about $200,000, and thanks to this support, Downs didn’t have to sell his family’s home.
Paying It Forward
In late March of 2018, Downs began his last post for “A Mild Touch of the Cancer” with words from his doctor. “It’s the best-case scenario; you are in complete remission!” The CAR-T trial had worked, and Downs left Boston for Auckland.
“That kind of experience makes you a better person,” Downs says. “You learn about what makes you tick, appreciate more about the world. I think, in a very weird way, it was one of the best years in my life.”
Humor, positivity, and paying it forward continue to be the pillars of Downs’ life. To share and to spread the community he’d found at Stanford, Downs got together with Stanford classmates to start a SEP Alumni Scholarship.
“We looked around as a cohort and realized we were missing folks from the not-for-profit sector,” Downs says. “Their work is just as complex, but leaders from there can’t afford a program like Stanford.”
The inspiration for their fund, Downs says, is Stanford GSB’s motto to change lives, change organizations, and change the world. Alejandra Hinojosa, the 2016 recipient, works to educate Mexican youths in entrepreneurship and prepare them for the global economy. Kinari Webb, this year’s recipient, provides primary health care for communities in Borneo. Those interested in supporting the scholarship can donate online, and, Downs says, they welcome support from all SEP alumni.
Downs is back at work as the general manager at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, but reserves time to get on stage for a bit of comedy and motivational speaking. He recently learned CAR-T immunotherapy trials are extending to brain, cervical, ovarian, breast, and pancreatic cancer. He says he recently was overjoyed to learn that the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in New Zealand “aims to do the same treatment I had to go to the other side of the world to get.” Downs is now helping bring the same life-saving treatment he had to his home country, with his campaign Down With Cancer.
— Jenny Luna