“I Found Out I Have Breast Cancer. Now What?”

Health scares become more and more common as we age. But what happens when you are the CEO and you have just gotten a diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease?


The Context 

I had been working with Diane for three months when I got an SMS from her. “We need to talk,” the message said. Given that our executive mentoring program was scheduled in detail for months to come, this was highly unusual. We agreed on a good time the next day and we sat down to talk.

“Yesterday morning I got a diagnosis from my doctor. I have breast cancer,” Diane told me.

She continued in sharing the information she knew at that point in time, and her doctor’s prognosis. “No one in the company knows about this yet. I wanted to talk to you before I bring this to our executive and communications team.”

The First Step

The first thing we needed to do was to identify the potential timeline for her healing process.

Diane shared that the doctors ordered a three-month pre-surgery intense procedure, followed by the surgery and subsequent chemotherapy. If all went very well, Diane should be back on her feet within 9 months from her diagnosis.

“It’s as if I were pregnant again,” Diane tried to laugh, the irony not being lost to her. “But I already have two kids. That I know how to handle. But this – this I still have to wrap my head around.”

The Second Step

Once we had the relative timeline on the table, we went back to Diane’s stakeholder map and we took a look to see who could be impacted how by her health situation.

We agreed that a suitable timeline to communicate her condition would be:

  1. Her executive team;
  2. Her company’s shareholders;
  3. The employee, client, and key business partner population;
  4. The external markets – aka the media, if need be.

We also decided that the communications needed to happen as soon as possible and before the pre-surgery procedure that will impact Diane’s vitality and energy significantly. So, the next two weeks were taken to plan and execute thoughtful communications and operational back-up. Afterwards, she dove into her medical process.

The Breakthrough 

There was one more thing yet that we knew needed to happen so Diane can come on the other side healthy and well. This was her mindset and her emotional energy.

“This is a time of intense emotions. So, what do you need to manage the rollercoaster ahead,” I asked her.

We tried to identify together the moments when emotions could run the highest during her medical procedures, how she could anticipate this, and how she could respond. Besides a healthy food and hydration regime and moderate physical activity, we also identified that joy had somehow went to the background in Diane’s life.

“So, how could you actually use this process ahead of you to focus more on joy,” I asked.

“Well, it won’t be easy. But I have my gratitude practice, I have my faith… I have a lot of people who love me and care about me, both at home and at work… Now, I cannot ignore that this doesn’t have to end well and, in a way, I need to prepare myself for that. I mean, I am not delusional. But I choose to focus on joy. Even if these were my last months on Earth, I don’t want the people I love to remember me sad or depressed,” she told me.

We spent some more time identifying the things bringing her joy – her favorite songs, books, and sweets. She made a note of asking her doctor what kind of delightful treats she would be allowed to have during her procedures. And she chose to focus on what she could do, as opposed to what she could not influence.

“I know I have a great team at work and they will do this. I know shareholders trust us – and I will do what I can to reinforce that trust. But I feel the key is in how I will handle myself. This is how I can turn this downturn into an opportunity and, who knows, even inspire someone in the process,” she said.

The Resolution 

Diane was lucky to have access to excellent medical facilities and doctors, so she knew she would be in good hands. This reassured her.

One more thing we did was to look out for other executives who had gone through major health scares. Diane identified a few and her assistant arranged calls with them. Seeing how well they fared now gave Diane extra hope. She knew she could do it, and that her health and herself was her priority right now. Fortunately, the circumstances around were supportive. Nine months later, Diane emerged from the process with a 98% clean bill of health. “It’s as good as it can be. Thank God for that,” she said.

Health scares can take us by surprise. The worst thing that we can do in such situations is to lose our critical distance and fall prey to fatality and powerlessness. Making peace with what is can bring confidence to yourself and to the people around you, and this is a good trampoline to jump on and leverage once you’re on the other side. Just don’t walk alone in the process. No one should ever walk alone – least so when health is at stake.

Let's Talk

Health scare or not, are you a woman CEO who could benefit from bringing a bit more self-awareness, gratitude, and joy into your life? Are you dealing with rollercoaster emotions that impact your well-being and your capacity to lead?

Let's Talk

Health scare or not, are you a woman CEO who could benefit from bringing a bit more self-awareness, gratitude, and joy into your life? Are you dealing with rollercoaster emotions that impact your well-being and your capacity to lead?