This fall marks 5 years since I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer called Triple Negative. I was 45, had a 5-year-old daughter who was just starting kindergarten and 3-year old twins. My business, Excelerate, was wrapping up a strong year and heading into a very promising new one. Not that there’s ever a good time to be sick, but really…it was not a good time for cancer to come knocking on my door. Yet it did, and so began a yearlong odyssey of curing my cancer. I immediately and affectionately titled it the “Unforgettable Journey,” feeling inspired to draw parallels and metaphors from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series of which I am a huge fan.
Now, when a business owner gets cancer, it’s a little different than say someone working in a corporation, or even another small business. The diagnosis is not only a big deal physically and emotionally, but it also has the potential to make a huge impact financially – and not in a good way.
The minute I received my diagnosis, I knew I needed to strategize how to regain my health and vitality with as little disruption to my life as possible. It took me about 30 minutes to put together the plan that would successfully carry me through a tough cancer battle. How did I do this is such a short amount of time? It’s an excellent question, and yet the answer is pretty simple; it took me less time to reorganize my life for survival than it takes to make dinner because I instinctively knew what I had to do. In fact, in those early moments of the diagnosis, I had an incredible epiphany that I carry with me always and share with others whenever I have the right opportunity – I call it the Pink Permission Slip.
When you have a potentially terminal disease, everything gets real clear real quick and all of a sudden, the things you were afraid to do, the things that might inconvenience someone else – they aren’t only the RIGHT things to do; they are the essential things to do. For me it meant executing a few classically good business decisions that I’d been resisting:
I said “YES” when I wanted to say yes, and “NO” when I wanted to say no. This is easy to say and often hard to do. When your success depends largely on relationships, referrals and repeat business, it’s far too easy to overcommit, and like most married business owners with kids, I was overcommitted. WAY overcommitted. Cancer helped change that. I literally wrote myself a bunch of pink permission slips to back away from some non-essential, yet seemingly important commitments.
With that, I graduated some of my clients who no longer fit in my business model. These were clients I adored and appreciated, but who cost more in inefficient time than they brought in value to the company. When time is of the essence, you want to focus your energy on what matters most. Just because you have capability, doesn’t mean you are the right person for the job; and I had to let some jobs go.
I cluster-booked all of my remaining clients into every-other-week appointments so that I could take off the entire week that I had my chemotherapy treatments. The value of doing this was predictability. Before cancer, I had known for a long time that my appointments were too spread out and that I could use my time more effectively, however, I had a really difficult time saying “no” to clients who wanted to reschedule. I allowed their preferences to be more important that my effectiveness. Cancer cured me of that dilemma.
I managed my story through the lens of my personal brand. This is perhaps the single most important element of my success and speedy recovery. I’ve been actively cultivating my personal brand since the 1990’s and people who know me have come to expect certain things when they look, talk, experience and receive service from me. My mom always taught me that when there’s a will, there’s a way. And, my will as I entered the cancer journey was that cancer would not become my story. Having had twins, I know that the things that radically affect your health become the stories about you that people connect to and sometimes those stories are all people can see.Cancer is just the kind of thing to be an all-consuming topic, and since I work with people to solve their problems and grow their careers and businesses, I knew I could not serve them if my cancer story became the centerpiece of our relationship. So, I made it a point to be very discerning about how and with whom I shared my cancer story.On the one hand, I notified about 50 close friends and family members. I sent them bi-weekly emails and gave honest, lighthearted updates about the kinds of things that go on when you are going through chemo, surgery and radiation. I took close friends to my chemo treatments and visited with friends and colleagues who stopped by with a meal or to check-in on me. In a very real way, I was present with the illness and not in denial. In that group was a handful of clients and when they asked how they could support me, I simply asked them to let our client time be about them and not about me.ON THE OTHER HAND…in every other facet of my life, I walked about as a healthy human being. When I attended events, I dressed to the nines and put on my glam wig and drew on eyebrows. I was very careful with my wig choices and went from a super close match to my long reddish-brown hair for five months and eventually transitioned to a more convenient shortcut several months later…and I bought that same wig four more times over the following 16 months while my hair fully grew out. By the time I ditched wigs altogether, it just looked like I got a haircut.I maintained my brand in appearance, and more importantly, in behavior. I never canceled, I only worked between 9 and 2 when my energy was at its best and I could be fully present, and I didn’t allow rescheduling. If someone missed an appointment, we simply picked up on the next round. When I saw clients, I showed up the same way I always do and no one was EVER the wiser. To this day I have clients who I saw bi-weekly that entire year and they still have no idea that five years ago I started undergoing cancer treatments.
The impact on my business, my family and my health were tremendously positive. My business grew 34% that year, so my husband and I could absorb the extra medical bills without extra stress. I applied the same principles at home – I always made it to the dinner table and rarely missed a tuck-in. My kiddos associated the baldness with a bad choice I’d made (a fun story for another day) and they routinely saw me going to client meetings so they never really knew how sick I was – and that’s a good thing for 3- and 5-year olds.
Best of all, living in congruence with my brand made me feel good. Sure I felt like absolute crap physically, but emotionally, I felt authentic, strong and in control. Among other things, my brand values include youthfulness, brilliance and resilience. Knowing that from the outset, living up to that standard wasn’t hard. What would have been much harder is not having a strong personal brand to guide and simplify my choices. Where cancer would have held me back, my brand propelled me forward.
People often ask if cancer changed me, and I sense they expect me to say something like, ‘I now have a greater appreciation for my life.’ But the reality is that I already appreciated my life. I love and adore my husband and kids, my family and friends, my business, my clients…and until cancer, I even appreciated my good health.
But yes, cancer changed me. You cannot transcend something like cancer without some scars, and I have scars. The scars of a warrior who fought the good fight, won the battle and has returned to rule another day! In the process of getting those scars, cancer liberated me – chemo killed off a lot of the insecurities that held me back; surgery cut out some of the fear I had about putting myself “out there,” and radiation …well radiation just zapped any remaining energy I had to make excuses for why I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.
At the end of the day, we only have so much time to do what we love and make the impact we want to make. Having cancer really showed me that who I was and who I wanted to be were just a few courageous decisions apart. No matter what battle you’re fighting – cancer, a divorce, job disruptions, etc., don’t be afraid to know who you are, make tough choices and go for the things you want. Treasure your time, follow your gut and be your best self. Like Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
October is breast cancer awareness month and I wrote this in hopes that it might serve as an encouragement for people in or recovering from the grip of cancer, and for those people who know and love them. Cancer is a chapter, but it doesn’t have to be the whole story.
Kimberly Gerber is the founder of Excelerate, an innovative leadership development firm specializing in coaching executives and their teams. For 30+ years, Kimberly has helped transform the impact of more than 1,600 leaders across industry-leading companies including Verizon, Allergan, Whirlpool, Revance, Blizzard, UCLA, Wescom and many others.
The creator of several innovative leadership development programs, Kimberly helps senior leaders create strategic vision, build strong cultures, elevate leadership presence, and finesse communication to strengthen their impact on teams and organizations. Committed to life-long learning, she completed undergrad and graduate studies in Communication, attained her Coaching Certification with Newfield Network, is an MBTI master practitioner and LACBA Certified Mediator.
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