Life between the boardroom and the oncology wing
“You have breast cancer” — four words that changed my life forever.
Until those words, cancer had been something that only happened to someone else. I don’t have any cancer in my family whatsoever — I think I unwittingly felt somewhat invincible to it. I was confident and secure in knowing who I was and that cancer wasn’t likely to play a part in my life, up until the final seconds before hearing those four words.
I think I unwittingly felt somewhat invincible to cancer.
It wasn’t dissimilar to being in the boardroom, a place I have spent many hours during the course of my career. My progression in hi-tech happened faster than I had ever really planned, and I had to adopt a bit of a ‘fake it till you make it’ mindset, underpinned with false confidence and perhaps a little naïve ignorance.
Board meetings can be unpredictable and adrenaline-filled — even when numbers may be down, strategy may be off-course, or motivation may be low, I’ve grown to quite enjoy the experience and the confidence that I often feel when they are over. The adrenaline and the potential discomfort of them has become quite addictive for me and dare I say it, I now love it when I see one arise in my calendar.
I remember the first time I stepped foot inside the cancer centre. For years I had driven past it. I used to look at the building like a child would look at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory from the outside. Nobody really knew what went on in there but everyone was secretly curious.
Walking in for the first time as a new patient was actually somewhat underwhelming. It was just like any other medical clinic: a little more modern and exceptionally clean (OK, fine, it was sterile and grey with really high ceilings and nice light fixtures) but it was calm and quiet.
As I rode the elevator to the chemo floor for the first time, that same feeling hit in the pit of my stomach that I am so familiar with from standing outside the boardroom. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe — there was a part of me that was nervous, of course, but another part that was excited and somewhat grateful to even be there. You see, my cancer diagnosis has brought on a lot of gratitude for me. I know that sounds strange, but it’s been one of my guiding principles since I received my diagnosis and learned of my early-stage (curable) prognosis. The same way I feel whenever I am invited to participate at a leadership level, I am grateful to be included and hopeful that my contributions may somehow make a difference.
My cancer diagnosis has brought on a lot of gratitude for me.
Find your person, said the voice inside of my head as I lay in a hospital bed, terrified, waiting to receive my first dose of chemotherapy. Look for the smiles. Look for the person in the room who is glad to see you here. This is a principle I have always adopted in business, too.
In any meeting I have been in, there are usually people looking to debate or argue, people who don’t particularly like or respect me, or people who are looking to emerge victorious over the broader group. That’s OK, I quite enjoy these people, but there’s always one person in the room who seems to understand me. A person who has kindness in their eyes when I speak, nods their head when I share my perspective, and provides a silent level of unspoken support.
Ironically, the cancer wing is really no different. As I looked around at all the other patients hooked up to their IVs, many without hair and all with their own priorities, I noticed it’s really the same as any boardroom. There are people who look sad, people who look angry, and people who certainly don’t want to be there — but in amongst the pain, the competing agendas, and the multiple backgrounds, there are people there who smile when I catch their eye. There are people who don’t even know me but who are cheering me on the second I walk into the room. Even on the days where chemo became unbearable for me, it was the love and support of people in that room that gave me the motivation and encouragement to walk back in there, over and over again.
If I have learned one thing this year, it’s this: find your people. The people who want you to succeed and the ones who wish only the best for you. Find those people in a room, and pay attention to the ones who cheer for you. Those are the people in life, and in business, who will carry you through the days when you don’t have the strength and belief to cheer for yourself.
If I have learned one thing this year, it’s this: find your people.
And more than this, BE that person for someone else today. You don’t have to be a business leader or a cancer patient to change the day and the life of someone who crosses your path. It doesn’t take a grand gesture, an unnatural act, or a big display — it takes authenticity, love, and gratitude. And as a cancer patient, trust me when I say, you just never know when your smile, your kindness, and your strength could be the medicine someone needs to carry them through their day.