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INNOVATE

I Almost Died From Breast Cancer, and It Made Me a Better CEO. Here’s Why

Is it possible to run a scaling startup while undergoing chemotherapy? I learned how the hard way.

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BY Debbie Madden - 07 May 2018

I Almost Died From Breast Cancer, and It Made Me a Better CEO. Here's Why

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

On September 5, 2015 I discovered a tumor in my left armpit. Two days later, I was diagnosed with Stage II HER2 Positive Breast Cancer. I was 41.

I was also the founder and CEO of a tech startup that was less than two years old.

The tumor was huge, and it was aggressive. I'd need strong chemo, radiation, surgery. The works. I was scared. Scared of dying. And, scared of losing my business. Surely it wouldn't be possible to go through chemotherapy, be there for my husband and kids and run a business at the same time.

I listened to the advice of others: Think positive thoughts, don't take life for granted, focus on relaxing and taking care of my health.

Yet, none of this put me at ease.

On the car ride to the hospital I confided in my husband. I was certain I'd have to shut down my business. He asked "Do you love it?" Yes. I did. "Then keep running it. Don't worry about the what-ifs, do the best you can and we'll figure it out. "

Fast forward to today. I am proud to say: I am cured and an official cancer survivor! And, I am equally proud to say: My business not only survived, but thrived.

It was the craziest thing. Having cancer actually made me a better CEO.

Here's how it happened:

I learned to let go.

In 2015, the business had 10 employees. I was very hands on, as are most startup CEOs. When I started chemo, it literally knocked me off my feet for months. I couldn't attend meetings. My brain was foggy and I couldn't make decisions.

Very quickly, I had to transition large chunks of my job to my team. I was forced to delegate. I had to come to grips with not knowing what was going on, not being involved in decisions. I had to accept that others did things differently than I would have preferred.

Nine months went by. I'd answer a few emails, show up to a few meetings, and largely rely on the team. I didn't really know how the business was doing. I knew employees weren't quitting. I knew clients weren't leaving. So, that was good. But, I didn't have my finger on the pulse of the health of the company. I figured I'd come back to work full time, and sort it all out then.

I learned how to coach others.

In the summer of 2016, I started to regain my strength. As I began to work more regularly, I saw how much the team had grown. They were confident, efficient, and had formed a deep, trusting bond with one another.

As it turns out, having cancer forced me to lead from the sidelines, something I had never done before. Instead of solving problems myself, I had to ask questions that would guide and coach others.

I learned how to coach others on how to coach others.

Coaching others has had a cascading effect. In the past three years, we've hired and promoted dozens of people. Now, we are 60 and growing, and he leaders who were coached are now coaching others, and leading by example. Now, we have a culture that fosters learning, creates a safe space for learning from failure, and empowers individuals to innovate.

Having cancer sucked. It was miserable. I am glad it's behind me. And, at the same time, I am thankful. Cancer required me to see my job through a new lens, and that is something I will always look back on fondly.

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