5 Leadership Lessons I learned from surviving Stage 2 Breast Cancer

In July of 2017, at the age of 40, I was diagnosed. Stage 2 breast cancer or Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) is the medical term for it. 

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a life altering experience. You go from happily going about your life to being faced with your own mortality. You embark on a daunting roller-coaster ride and you don’t know when it will end. 

Within weeks, I was asked to make decisions that would have an impact on the rest of my life. Battling this terrible disease taught me a great deal of skills.

Seek input and advice:

I am not a cancer expert. Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t have the slightest notion what having cancer even means. I began to research online, consulted with doctors, friends and others to make the most informed decision possible. When you’re faced with making life altering decisions, you need to rely on input from others.

As a leader, you have a great amount of knowledge, but you cannot be an expert on everything. You need those around you to help you make a more informed decision. Be curious about what you might be missing. Include your team, peers and others in big decisions. Operating in a silo can be detrimental to your business because you set yourself up to miss ideas and solution you cannot see yet. 

At the same time, this will help your team feel more included and feel like they are a part of the decisions you make. This, in turn, will create more ownership and will increase your likelihood of success. 

Be present:

Life is precious. A statement you hear often, but it becomes much more real if you understand that your life could end sooner than you anticipate. The average person is probably not thinking about when they’re going to die. As a cancer patient, it is very easy to get caught in the stories of your mind. What if I die? What if chemo doesn’t work? What if the cancer comes back? I had such a nice life, now my life will never be the same. All those statements are either contemplating the future or reminiscing about the past. What they’re not, is in the here and now. If you get caught up in your stories, you miss out on what is right in front of you. Appreciate what’s happening in the present moment. Savor every moment with your family and friends. Appreciate your surroundings, the weather and nature. Feeling the sun on your skin, the sand between your toes. I would ask myself on a daily basis if I was being present and in the moment, or stuck in the past or future and redirect myself to the present. It required constant practice, but it continues to make my life so much richer. 

Applying presence to your interactions with your team, employees and family can change the way you work. Have you ever been in a meeting where you felt like you were really heard? What did that feel like? It was probably because the other person gave you their full attention. Being present goes beyond just listening. You need to be tuned in to the other person. What are the non-verbal cues they transmit? Can you stay in the moment, and not let your mind wander to the next meeting, or let go of the previous meeting you were in? Listening to your breath and observing your body can quickly connect you to the present. Do you feel the ground under your feet supporting you, or the warmth of the sun coming through the window?

Positive attitude:

I made a conscious choice to not let cancer consume my life. I accepted that it is now part of who I am and always will be. I did not want to become the disease. It is something I observed while in the hospital with other patients. They would be so down and negative. That was not going to be me. I’m a strong believer in positive psychology and the positive energy you put out in the universe will support you. I was going to do everything in my power to beat this disease. Even if it doesn’t work out in the end, I can be at peace that I did everything I could control. It’s all in the attitude. It’s not easy to remain positive at all times, but you can choose not to let the negativity encroach on your life. 

There is a lot of negativity in the work place. Disengaged employees, upset customers, company results not meeting expectations and many more. As a leader, you have a great responsibility to remain positive and look at each obstacle with a glass half full attitude. I do not mean the cheerleader who is rah rah-ing, but a leader who can change his mindset and look at things from a positive angle, even if the circumstances themselves might not be positive. This requires a leader who understands what they can control, which is how you respond to a situation instead of letting the situation control you. Who do you choose to be?


You might be surprised, but self-care is not implied when facing cancer. You are on the hamster wheel of continuous doctor’s appointments, treatments and managing side effects and you cannot simply take a day off from cancer. I decided that cancer was not going to consume my life and I tried to keep my life as normal and as regular as possible. This included going on the cruise I had already booked in the middle of my chemotherapy (with the doctor’s permission, of course). I love to travel and discover the world, and this is something that allows me to disconnect from my day to day, so when I had the opportunity to travel, I did. It took my mind off the daily trips to the hospital for a little while. It allowed me to recharge. Self-care also includes saying no to friends and family when they want to meet up, go out or come by. You are not being selfish or rude. Healing from cancer takes a great deal of effort and you are the number one priority. You need to put yourself first. 

I learned that there is more to life than work. Before cancer, I would often prioritize work over other things, including my husband and family. Work is only a part of life and although it might, at the surface, seem that work is the most important. I can tell you, it’s not. I’m not saying you need to stop working the way you are, but maybe consider where it is on the priority list of your life. Are you prioritizing staying late at the office over dinner with your partner? What would it take to say no to a last-minute request that would require you to work on the weekend? Self-care is about creating boundaries. It will take some time to set those boundaries. It’s not happening overnight, but little by little, you can control how you are spending your time and with whom. Remember, you are a leader in your organization and your employees and teams follow your lead. If you respond to emails on the weekend, they will feel the need to do the same. 

Take responsibility for what is in your control:

There are a lot of possibilities for how you experience your cancer treatment. You can choose to follow along with the process and let it all happen or take control and manage your disease. 

From the get go, I wanted to make sure I had the right doctors for me. We went into each doctor’s appointment with an interview mindset. How do I feel about this doctor? Are they taking their time with me? Are they creating a connection with me or am I just a number on a chart? Taking this stance created a sense of control and I didn’t feel comfortable with all my doctors, so I worked with the insurance provider to find another one. 

Another example was during the chemotherapy where you are assigned a random nurse every week or treatment round. I could have just gone along with their process. Instead, I asked to be assigned the same nurse whenever possible and this was not a problem at all. It made my treatment experience so much better. We created a routine that made it so much easier for both of us.

If you were to make a list of things that you would need to perform better, what would be on that list? Think about the list and go item by item. What things are in your control and which are not. What I mean by being in control is that you, as a leader, can change the situation instead of one that you cannot change (e.g. the stock market). There are a lot of things that are in your control, if you take on the right mindset. Let’s say you have an employee who is underperforming. What have you done to improve the employee’s performance? Did you call HR to tell them you need someone else? Maybe you can sit down with him/her to get a better understanding what they need to perform better. Do they even know you think they are underperforming? Those things are in your control. Now, what do you do about the things that are not? Instead of pointing the finger and “blaming” outside forces, you can think about how you can respond to the situation. What choices do you have? 

Having cancer is not something I can change, but I can choose how to face it.

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