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Surviving Stage 2 Breast Cancer: 5 Leadership Lessons I Learned

By Barbara Geels-Dingle
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In the summer of 2017, I became one of eight. In the US, one in eight women will get diagnosed with breast cancer and I was now one of them. At age 40, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.

Life changes dramatically when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly you go from joyfully going about your life to being faced with your own mortality. In the blink of an eye, you are on board a frightening roller-coaster ride and you have no idea how or when it will end.

In just a few weeks, I had to make decisions that impacted directly on the rest of my life. And fighting this awful illness taught me priceless skills.

 

Seek input and advice

I am not a cancer expert. Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t have the slightest notion of what having cancer even means. I researched 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 solutions you cannot see yet.

At the same time, being curious 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 focusing on, is 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. Feel 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, and if I was stuck in the past or future I would redirect myself to the present. It requires 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 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. This was something I observed while in the hospital with other patients. They would be so down and negative. I decided that was not going to be me. I’m a strong believer in positive psychology and that 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 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 their mindset and look at things from a positive angle, even if the circumstances themselves might not be positive. This requires a leader who understands that what you can control is only how you respond to a situation, instead of letting the situation control you. Who do you choose to be?

 

Self-care

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. 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? Do you check the perceived urgency of a request? Self-care is about creating boundaries. It will take some time to set those boundaries. It’s not going to happen 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

I discovered that there are a lot of possibilities for how to experience 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 real sense of control. 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 I discovered that you are assigned a random nurse every week or treatment round. I could have just gone along with this 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 much easier for both of us.

Are there any skills, abilities, attitudes, capabilities, anything you want or need to improve? What if you create a list of those things? What would you include? Go one by one and reflect on each. Which of those are under your control and which are not? By being in control I mean that you, as a leader, can intervene and modify the situation instead of one that you cannot change (e.g. economic crisis). If you have the right mental model you’ll realize that there are a lot of things that you can change. For example, an employee on your team who is underperforming. Have you done something to improve the employee’s performance? An option could be to sit down with them and explain what are your expectations and for them to understand what they can do to deliver better results. Are they even aware they are not performing as expected? Have you done as much as you can to support them to reach their performance potential? These things are under your control.

As I mentioned previously, there’re also things beyond your control, what do you do with those? Blaming the outside could make you right, but will leaves you impotent or unable to intervene or change any situation, it’s like waiting for the external factors to decide for you. Remember, you can always chose how to respond to any situation. The question is, what choices do you have?

Having cancer is something beyond my control, something I cannot change. I can, however, choose how to respond to it.

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