Breast Cancer and 4 Leadership Lessons
Updated: Jun 23
It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month and during this month, besides urging women to get their annual mammogram, I always take time to reflect on my own experience with the disease. I was diagnosed and treated almost four years ago. Like most anyone given a cancer diagnosis, I was full of questions and raw emotions. I was lucky to be able to choose my treatment and decided on a prophylactic double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. This choice led to some learnings that I didn't expect.
I've always been fiercely independent, just ask my family. So having to rely on others, a lot, was something new to me. As I reflect back on that time and what I learned about myself and the process, I realize some of what I experienced are related to skills and traits that make for a good leader. Here are a few of them.
Surround yourself with a good team
My medical team was formed based on recommendations and referrals from my primary doctor. The team ended up being made up of all women. While I wasn't looking for that to begin with, as I met with each of them I realized how important that was to me. I trusted each of them implicitly and felt I could be myself at all times whether I was showing my stubbornness or vulnerability. As a leader, building a team with the right skills, that you trust to do the right thing, even when you're not in the room is critical.
Accept the generosity of others
As I said before I have always been independent. The thought of needing a lot of help, whether emotional or physical was something new to me. I learned to ask for the help I needed and accept the generosity from those who offered. There were so many people who brought me dinner, kept me company, and even did such mundane things as helping me fold my clean sheets. I accepted it all with more gratitude than I can even articulate and now, three-plus years later, I find it easier to accept in all circumstances. Generosity is a leadership trait that is not always recognized. Good leaders are generous with their time with others.
You can't over-communicate or listen too intently
Leadership is all about communication both how you communicate and how you listen. During a health issue it's important to advocate for yourself, ask all of your questions, even if they seem irrelevant, and most importantly listen. When I received the call that my biopsy was positive one of my early thoughts was, "I will not go to any other appointment without someone else with me to listen and ask questions I might not think of". This meant I had to rely on the trait above, generosity. Every friend I asked said yes, and many others offered. I also learned to say what I needed and didn't need, even if it might not have been popular for the those hearing it. We know that strong leaders practice good communication. Learning to listen and not just hear, is a practiced skill that takes your communication to the next level.
Have a sense of humor
Things will go wrong and can be frustrating but if you can laugh about it, it helps. My favorite post surgery story was when I was getting dressed to go to a business dinner. I had the perfect dress, since it didn't need to go over my head. What I didn't plan for was the zipper up the back. I called some neighbors but they didn't answer. So there I was walking half-dressed through the hall of my condo building and knocking on a neighbor's door asking him to zip my dress. I also had to make sure he would be home to help me out of it. I think he was more embarrassed than I was. Being able to laugh at yourself is a good sign of self-awareness, an important EQ characteristic.
These are just a few of the lessons, though there were many others. I wouldn't wish for anyone to go through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, or any other severe illness. The upside was that it taught me some valuable lessons including how to look at things from a different perspective. I'm sure there are many of you reading this who have your own lessons from something similar you experienced. I'd love to hear your stories.