Dr. Allen Lycka On The Secrets Of Living A Fantastic Life
Has life given you lemons? Are you struggling to make sense of what's happened to you? In 2003, today's guest was diagnosed with ALS and given just 6 months to live. Determined to survive, he went in search of a miracle. Along the way, he uncovered the secrets of living a fantastic life.
In this episode, leading cosmetic dermatologist, renowned podcast and radio host, sought after speaker, and best-selling and award-winning author, Dr. Allen Lycka sits down with Ellie Shefi to discuss the lessons he learned along his journey to defy his death deadline. Dr. Lycka shares 13 golden pearls of wisdom that he believes exist within each of us, and he provides actionable strategies for turning life's lemons into lemonade. Tune in to discover the secrets of living a fantastic life!
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Dr. Allen Lycka On The Secrets Of Living A Fantastic Life
My guest has been recognized as one of the world’s leading cosmetic dermatologists for decades. He is a renowned podcast and radio host, a sought-after speaker, and a bestselling author who has written over seventeen books for which he has received the prestigious Quilly Award. In 2003, he was misdiagnosed with ALS and told he had six months to live. Alive and thriving, now he dedicates his life to helping others overcome adversity and live a fantastic life. Welcome to the show, Dr. Allen Lycka. You have lived quite a life. What was it like when you were told that you had six months to live?
Let me go back to that whole episode because that old episode is what changed and made my life what it is. I was walking with my dear wife at Disneyland. She turned to me and said, “What is wrong with you?” I said, “I don’t think there is anything wrong with me.” She said, “You have got to listen to your foot.”
I said, “That is the funniest thing you have ever seen. What do you need to listen to your foot?” She said, “Listen to it.” My right foot had suddenly and mysteriously developed a right foot drop. She said, “Did you have a stroke?” I said, “You are a doctor. I’m a doctor. If I have a stroke, I’m probably lying on the pavement, muttering something unintelligible, but no, I don’t think I have had a stroke.” She said, “There is definitely something wrong. When you get back, you better get this checked out.”
You are at Disneyland and your wife notices that your right foot has dropped and rightfully so got concerned.
It is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth, but it certainly wasn’t the happiest place on Earth at that time. Probably hundreds of doctors were befuddled by all this. They couldn’t find anything wrong. They had done all these tests. They did brain scans but they couldn’t find anything wrong.
Walk me through what that was like as someone who has also experienced being a medical miracle and a guinea pig for nine years. I know what my mental and emotional journey was going through doctor after doctor and test after test.
It is the most frustrating thing because you know that they are looking for something and trying to find something bad. They are looking for cancer or something like a neurological problem that is not readily available. They keep looking. Doctors are like that. When they can’t find something, they find another test that is going to find something. They will find another test that will find something. It is a frustrating thing.
It must be very difficult for a doctor who is an internal medicine specialist because they keep looking. They are always looking for these bad things. As a doctor, I had to put myself aside from this and say, “This is not good what they are doing. Maybe at the end of this, they will have an answer.” They finally sent me to a neurologist. A neurologist is the brain guy. He is the guy that has all the answers to all the brain problems. I went to see him. I walked in and said, “Hi.” He said, “You better be sitting down when I tell you this.” I said, “Why?” He said, “It is because you have ALS Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
You have medical training as well. You are quite an esteemed accomplished physician. Yet here you are, have now experienced going through doctor after doctor, test after test. How are you balancing the emotions, pressures, fears, and anxiety? What is going through your head before he tells you that you have ALS at that moment?
I don’t think there is any balancing it at all. At that point in time, you are powerless. Even as a doctor, you are walking in and this doctor that has all the pieces is giving you a diagnosis. I asked him, “Is there a way to prove this diagnosis?” He said, “Of course, on autopsy.” I shoot back at him, “I’m not going to die to prove you wrong.” There is no way I’m going to go through this. When you go through this, you go through the phases of death and dying. I know you went through them as well.
The only good thing about anger is it drives you forward.
When you went through those tremendous years, that terrible time in your life, one of the first emotions you hit is anger. You are so angry at the world. You could bite the head of nails. The whole world is angry. The only good thing about anger is it drives you forward. You are not incapacitated. At least when you are angry and you are doing something. You are mad at everything, spinning, and everything else, but that is a very primary emotion that you go through.
Another basic emotion you go through is bargaining, “God, please don’t let this happen. I will do anything if you don’t let this happen.” You go through a stage of denial. I’m sure you went through the stage of denial, too, that you say, “No, there is nothing wrong. I am healthy and I can do anything.” I have worked 12 to 18 hours a day. I drove myself through all this, but my right leg wasn’t working right. Through all this, my right arm started not working right either.
It was not able to hold the surgical instruments that I was able to. I was talented. I learned how to do everything with my left hand. My left hand became as good as my right hand. I became a one-handed surgeon. I can do everything with my left hand. I was able to carry on but then I came to a very ugly state called depression. Are you ever depressed through the states that you went through?
I was only very briefly. For me, I held on to anger and used that as fuel. Instead of falling into depression, I went the other way, where I reverted to that petulant determined child. It was like, “No, you are not going to win. I’m not succumbing. I can’t hear you. I’m not listening to you. You are not the boss of me.” I went in into that mode and used that as a driver.
These are all phases that people have to go through. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called these stages that people go through. I don’t think these are stages. I think you flip through these. Your brain goes into one, and then it goes into another. They happen all going on at the same time. The worst one, the one where incapacities get to you, is depression. There are so many people that go through that depression stage, where everything is black. You can’t sleep and eat. The world is black. People contemplate suicide in this because there is no way out of this depression.
I think I even considered that for a while. I went to my wife and said, “What should I do?” She said, “You are smart. You can figure it out.” I said, “I saw hundreds of doctors. They couldn’t figure it out.” She said, “I have faith in you. You can figure it out.” That was a vote of confidence. In 2003, something new was invented. You might have heard of that. It is called the internet.
Yes. You decided that you were not going to accept the neurologist’s diagnosis and set out to figure it out for yourself.
Being a dermatologist and all these things, I have a lot of knowledge and friends. We didn’t have Dr. Google and Dr. Yahoo. We didn’t have all these things that help us now, but that was the way we used to interact with things and get things done. I was able to find a doctor in Colorado Springs, Colorado by the name of David Martz, who had a story very similar to mine. He had gotten worse much more rapidly than I did. He literally was on his death bed within a couple of weeks of his diagnosis.
Doctors from around the world were coming up to say goodbye to him. He was a well-known hematologist and beloved. People were coming up to say goodbye to him. A doctor came up from Texas to say goodbye to Dr. Harvey. He looked at David and said, “David, there is something wrong with this picture. You do not have ALS, this unclear disease, or this Lou Gehrig’s disease. You have something called Chronic Lyme’s disease.” He said, “What is that?” It is because no one had ever heard of it back then. He said, “I think you are being bitten by a tick and it is mimicking this disease called ALS. If I start you on treatment, I can make you better.” He started on treatment. Like Lazarus, he arose from the dead. Within two weeks, he was back to his normal self.
When you hear about him and his story, mentally and emotionally, take us through that process.
I said, “This is amazing. I think there is an answer to my questions here. This person has some answers to it.” I immediately started calling all the hospitals in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Doctors can get in touch with any other doctor if they want to. All they have to do is find out which hospital they work at and introduce themselves as a doctor. They will get in touch with them. They got in touch with David Martz for me.
I got in touch with him at the Methodist Hospital in Colorado Springs. We talked for hours. He said, “Dr. Lycka, I have started a clinic treating people with this disease. I have treated over 2,000 people with this disease now. It is amazing but this is much more common than people realized. Can you come down to see me?” I said, “I would love to. When would you like me to come?” He said, “What about right now?” I would love to but it is our Thanksgiving in Canada. We have a different Thanksgiving than you do here. My wife had invited over 50 people for that weekend. I said, “I can’t.” He said, “Aren’t there any planes in Canada?”
I went to my wife and apologized. I said, “I won’t be here for Thanksgiving.” She said, “Where are you going? You always seem to be going away.” I said, “I’m going to Colorado Springs to a person that claims he can help me.” She said, “What are you waiting for? I will pack your bags for you. I will drive you to the airport.” I first went from Edmonton to Denver. It is a great flight, about two and a half hours long. I got on her rinky-dink puddle jumper from Denver to Colorado Springs.
Walk me through the emotions when you have your ticket and there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The best way to describe your emotions was on that flight from Denver to Colorado Springs. At the end of the day, the air comes off of the desert and it causes unease. All of a sudden, the air will cause a plane to drop 100 feet, climb 100 feet, and drop 100 feet. You are like a yo-yo, cork in a tidal wave, or a wild ride. The emotions are all over the place. You are up, down, around, and thrown about in this turbulent time. That was insane.
I crawled off and he said, “You are not looking so good, Dr. Lycka.” I said, “I’m not feeling so good.” He says, “It is probably analogous to what you have been going through all these years. I think we need to go and talk.” We talked and at the end of it, he said some miraculous words, “History is repeating itself. You are going through what I went through. I can start you on treatment. You can become better as I did.” That is how I was able to succeed and maintain my practice as a top cosmetic surgeon for many years when I was able to win the Consumer’s Choice Award for each of those years because of blind determination.
How amazing that you were able to connect with this doctor? Obviously, here we are many years later, and you now have pivoted and are helping people live fantastic lives. You have taken everything from your journey and are now using it to help people. What did you learn from all of these experiences?
When you go through something so devastating like this, as you did, you decide what life you are going to live and what to do to make life different. When you go through devastating things like this, you check yourself and say, “Did I have a great life? Did I live? Did I love it? Did I matter?” One of the things I decided to do was to give back to society. The thing I decided to do was to sponsor any of those called The Women of Distinction for the YWCA. In that, we honored women for the roles that they did to sponsor this gala event. The lady by the name of Harriet Tinka applied for an award called The Turning Point Award.
The journey along the way helps to prepare you for the destination.
You wrote a book with her.
Harriet’s story is like mine, but so different. She applied for the award because she was a world-class mom. She was walking the cap ropes of New York and decided she didn’t like it anymore. She became an accountant and took an Accounting Degree at the University of Calgary. She was befriended by an ugly, mean person who ended up kidnapping or stabbing her and leaving her to death.
She applied for this award so that she could talk to me and said, “We need to write a book on our adventures.” We wrote this book called The Secrets To Living A Fantastic Life, which took a couple of years to write, but it is about people overcoming adversity, living the lives that they need to do, getting outside of their shell and doing the things that they need to do with their lives. It is things people can do with their life.
Let’s dive into that because this show is all about giving people actionable tools and strategies that they can use to live life on their own terms and truly become the architect of a life that they love. It is a life that is free by design, where they are shedding the chains of their past, living with intentionality, and making the decisions to live that life that they love. Let’s talk about some of those actionable tools.
I will tell you what actionable tools we talked about in our book. We talk about golden pearls, which are amazing things. They exist in nature in the South Pacific. The way a pearl is formed is a little grain of sand gets inside of an oyster. It causes the oyster not to be destroyed by it but to wall it off and make this golden pearl. These golden pearls are so rare. A single solitary golden pearl costs upwards of $10,000. The golden pearls that are found inside of you are even more invaluable. They are right inside of you. Everybody needs to look at them and realize what they are. In the chapters of our book, we refer to thirteen little golden pearls everybody should look at.
Run us through the thirteen golden pearls.
Number one is love. The second is inspiration. The third is victory. The fourth is vulnerability. The fifth is intention or purpose. The sixth are non-negotiables. The seventh is forgiveness. The eighth is attitude. The ninth is thankfulness. The tenth is tenacity. The eleventh is laughter. The twelfth is enthusiasm. The thirteenth is empowerment.
Those are definitely golden pearls. All thirteen of those are important to creating a life you love or living a fantastic life. You have overcome a lot in your journey and these thirteen golden pearls. Besides the golden pearls, what would you say has been the single most powerful resource tool or strategy that you personally have used to move from this misdiagnosis of ALS into this full-aligned, fantastic life that you love?
I think it is a statement that was made by a sophist so many years ago. His name was Epictetus. He said, “It is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens.” I think that single solitary statement drives me through every day. That is what basically can take anybody from where they are at to where they are going to be to embrace that philosophy. Remember, it is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens.
That is so true, perspective, meaning, change your story, change your life, and using empowering language, assigning empowering meanings to the events and circumstances you are experiencing because obviously, you don’t have control over the external events and circumstances that happen. You do absolutely have control over the perspective you hold about that or the meaning you give to it. To your point, you have control over what you do with what happens to you and over the actions that you take. What is the most powerful tool that you have used for your mindset to be able to control what you do with what happens to you?
It is best to say my little story in one of my chapters. There was a carpenter by the name of Fred. He was tired after working for one company all the days of his life. He went to his boss and said, “Boss, I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.” The boss was taken aback because Fred had helped him build every house in the company that he had built. He said, “Could you please do one more thing before you leave?”
Fred said, “Of course, I have loved it here. This is the only job I have ever had, but I would love to help you with whatever you would like.” The boss said, “Build one more house. You are the only person that can do it. You are my master carpenter.” Fred grudgingly said yes, but his heart was not into it. He dragged his ass to work and basically caught the job done.
In the end, a miracle happened, the house passed inspection. He went back to his boss and said, “Boss, I’m done. Here are the keys to that last house.” The boss said, “Hold it, Fred, we are going to have a big party.” He gathered everybody in the office. They popped the champagne, caviar, and a great party. At the end of it, the boss said, “Gather around, everybody. I have something to say. Everybody, this is Fred’s last day. I’m going to be very sad, but he is going to be very happy because he is retiring. Fred, I have got a gift for you. Here are the keys to the last house you ever built. Enjoy it with all the enthusiasm you have given me all the years of your life.”
You mentor and help many people, but what is one piece of advice you wish somebody would have shared with you earlier in your journey? How would that piece of advice have affected the rest of your journey? How would that piece of advice have affected what you would have done with events and circumstances?
It is talking to my younger self and telling myself some of the things I have learned along the way. I would say, “Younger self, enjoy the journey along the way. Don’t be as driven to get to the destination. The journey along the way helps to prepare you for the destination. Enjoy some of the things you are doing. Don’t try to get it done.” Those are some of the things I think many people are always trying to do to build their company. They are trying to do their thing now and trying to look over the important things. They need to decide that those things are formative.
Those are the things that will allow you to enjoy the things there now. Enjoyment comes in the moment and perspective. When I get up in the morning, I look at my schedule, and I say, “Look at who I’m talking to? Look at the amazing people I have the pleasure of sharing some time with.” When I looked at my schedule, I said, “This wonderful thing we’re going to be doing.”
You have an incredible podcast. We met because we both received a Quilly Award, and I had the honor of being on your podcast, and here we are on this show. I have so much respect for your journey and how you show up in the world and have made it your mission and your purpose to help people live a fantastic life. I love that your answer was basically playing more and having more fun along the way. We often focus on the outcome or the destination and forget about the journey. I think that is a powerful reminder to everyone is play and laugh more.
Enjoy the journey to your point about being grateful every single day. Even the smallest of things like these incredible conversations that we are able to have. What would you say to them as you are having them navigate getting off the success train? Where shifting the focus from, “I need to achieve and be successful by accomplishing or achieving all of these things.” What would you say to them to help them shift their focus from those external achievements and accomplishments, help them silence that inner critic, or deal with limiting beliefs or paradigms so that they can enjoy the journey?
It is a simple journey. I think people should read more and look at things that way. Start the year by picking up three books and reading them. Start the journey by picking up three things that you would like to do. Start the year by doing some things that you would not regularly do. Little baby steps are what takes it.
Success is not that difficult when you realize that all you have to do is two or three little things today to make it happen.
You start the year by making a commitment with spending ten minutes being silent and listening to your inner self. Those are things that helped to get you off that success-driven track. Success is not that difficult when you realize that all you have to do is 2 or 3 little things each day to make it happen. That is what determines a lot of our successes along 2 or 3 little baby steps along the way. You don’t have to be overly consumed by it. You have to let it happen more.
It is the old adage, how do you eat an elephant one bite at a time? I love one step at a time. Progress over perfection because there is no such thing. Doing 2 or 3 smaller things every day to move the needle so that you are continually making progress while you are moving the needle to enjoy the journey to being present in that journey. Self-care is critical. You know it as a physician, throughout your own journey, and when you are helping people to create that fantastic, joyful life or the life that they love. What is your self-care practice? How do you ensure that it remains a priority?
The easiest way to start a self-care practice, and one of the things I do is to concentrate on being grateful and on the gratitude that I have. I wasn’t supposed to be here in 2003. It is easy for me to look at things and how I do things and say, “No matter what, I’m very grateful for all this extra time that I have been given and this time to help others to move forward and help them with their perspective of things.” That is where I think that gratefulness is a very important part of people’s planning and moving forward with that. Without that gratefulness, I don’t think there is a good perspective for people to move forward with.
Gratitude for me is the single most important thing. To be grateful for every breath you take, for every moment you have, and for all of the experiences, the people you meet, and the experiences you get to have. If you had to sum up your life and journey in a few sentences, what would that be?
I think the one sentence is, again, the statement of Epictetus where he stated, “It is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens.” Remember, if you are given lemons, you could make lemonade. You don’t have to concentrate on the fact that you have been given lemons. Remember that it is the little baby steps you take to make things happen. There will be failures along the way. In fact, many of the things I became greatest at were some of my biggest failures.
I had to apply to get into dermatology schools many times in order to be successful at it. I remember once my mother-in-law was saying, “When is he going to give up this foolish job goal that he has?” We proceeded, and I was able to get a great internship and residency. I was able to be successful at that. When I found that my right arm was not working right or my right leg was not working right, I was able to overcome that. Even without that, I’m still grateful that I have a great left arm, leg, and brain that helps me to overcome my obstacles to my grave and day. It is not a challenge but a joy to succeed forward each and every day.
What would you like to be remembered for? With all the things you have done and continue to do, all of the accolades you have, and all of the contributions you have already made in this world, what would you say is your legacy?
My legacy is helping others do the greatest that they can and helping others move forward with their lives. That would be the greatest legacy I have. As I said, some of my greatest achievements are the children and grandchildren I have. Those are some of my greatest achievements. I think some of the people I have helped, mentored, and taught along the way are some of the greatest achievements I have had. I look forward to helping people than their regular day and helping them in any way I can.
You mentioned your children and your grandchildren, and them being such a critical part of your legacy. Let’s fast forward. You are at the end of your life and have moments left to live. What is the message that you are leaving? Not only the world but your children and your grandchildren.
The message is one I have already stated. It is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens. That is the message I would like everybody to take forward and move with them. That was the message they should embody in themselves.
What would you say is your core why? What is your burning desire, your mission, or your purpose at this stage in your life?
As I get older, I realize I don’t have many more years on the planet. I looked at myself and said, “I’m old. I have already done a lot of things. I hope I can do a lot more as time goes on.” Realistically, I might live until I’m 80 or 90 years in age but each year is a blessing and something you are given.
Thank you so much for spending this time and sharing your story with us, your message and your mission. It is certainly a powerful one. My top takeaways from this incredible conversation that we have had are to enjoy the journey to have more fun, play more, live in gratitude, do a couple of things every day, move the needle and embrace that no matter what happens to you.
It is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you. You are in control of creating a fabulous life and a life that is free by design. What has happened to you, you are not your events and circumstances. Dr. Lycka, you are a miracle. How can people connect with you to learn more about your work? How can people find you?
Thank you so much for spending this time. May you continue to live a legendary, fantastic life and live a life that is free by design. Until next time.