February 22, 2015, seemed like an ordinary Sunday in my house. I got up early with the intention of taking an 8 a.m. Pilates class, looked in on my still-sleeping 11-year-old twins and thought about how good coffee will taste after I finish the hour-long class.
Then, standing in the bathroom, I felt my neck and noticed a lump. Nevertheless, I went ahead and did some stretches to limber up for the Pilates. Next thing I knew, I was coming to after passing out on the floor.
A few days later, on a date now forever seared into my memory – February 25 – a doctor told me tests showed I had cancer at the age of 43. Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, to be exact, a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that strikes about 20,000 people in the United States annually.
While DLBCL is an aggressive lymphoma, it’s also a common and highly treatable one. I had six chemotherapy treatments between March and June last year. And I’m happy to report that this month, I celebrate one-year cancer free!
Many in the Kulesa Faul community haven’t known about my illness until now – I never stopped working other than for a couple of weeks during the diagnosis, when many hours were spent in and out of hospital rooms and doctors’ offices.
Cancer sucks. I wouldn’t recommend it. Losing my soft, dark brown hair was a shock at first. Weakness from chemotherapy sometimes made it impossible for me to pursue my favorite hobby, running. Telling people you have cancer is so awkward it can feel almost as painful as having cancer. And there are more fun things to do than face your own mortality.
But, who knew, cancer has made me a better person. I’m amazed by – even grateful – for life-changing lessons I’ve taken from the experience. Five examples:
Work-life balance is mandatory. It’s too easy in today’s world to lose sight of one of the few undeniable facts in the universe: Life is short. Work is a necessary and, one hopes, wonderful and rewarding part of life. But you’re cheating yourself and your family if you don’t set boundaries. I work just as hard as before, but when I’m off, I’m off. I used to take conference calls, write proposals, etc. during vacations. No more. Life is too precious.
Patience really is a virtue. If you’re not a patient person, being a cancer patient will make you one. All that waiting in doctors’ offices, all those forms to fill out, all those phone calls with the insurance company. Not to mention six hours per chemotherapy treatment. (I’d spend that time working or watching movies – I never went anywhere without my laptop or iPad.) I feel less stressed out at work and at home now because I have learned to become more patient.
Trust your team. During the first two weeks of my diagnosis when I almost completely checked out, more responsibility suddenly fell on agency team members. They not only handled it, they handled it well and flourished. For me, this really reinforced the importance of hiring good people, trusting them, and giving them the space to grow.
Be present. I’ve always been impressed by business leaders who, no matter how busy they are, make you feel like you’re the only person in the world who matters when you spend time with them. For some reason, my cancer experience has taught me to be more like that – to put the person who is in front of me in a given moment first. To eliminate distractions that so often affect human interactions.
Fly your freak flag. I used to be the type who would get bummed out by bad hair days or unsatisfactory haircuts. Chemo-induced baldness was somehow freeing. The first thing I did when my hair started to grow back: Dyed it platinum blond and kept it short and punky. Why not?!
I’m thinking a lot about these lessons as I celebrate my one-year cancer-free anniversary. I never would have expected that having cancer, in a way, has made me healthier.
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