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What Cancer Taught Me About Leadership, Connection and Imperfection

The worst news can be transformational. Being told I had cancer stopped me in my tracks, but it created a turning point that changed how I live and lead.

Fourteen years ago I followed my heart and set up my own therapy business, running a destination clinic offering pre and postnatal care for high-flying mothers and their babies. We supported over 10,000 women and I loved it with a passion; but I ate, slept and breathed my business, working both as the lead therapist and chief everything officer to the point I had focus for very little else. A year or so after launching, my best friend and mentor died unexpectedly in a car accident but although I was devastated by his loss I felt my small, new and relatively inexperienced team was not equipped to cope without me. I took a few days off but looking back, I realise I buried much of my grief, fear and emotion, believing that, as a leader, I needed to keep it together, regardless of what I was feeling inside.

Our relationship was something I’ll always cherish but his death created a space which I initially struggled to fill, feeling alone both personally and perhaps more critically – professionally. (There wasn’t the myriad of networks for leaders we have available now). A couple of years later I did meet the man I thought I would marry but, with the insight I now have, I can see that we were destined to fail and unfortunately it became a complicated love story, without the fairytale ending. When he died horrifically, in an accident at home I was grief stricken and traumatized once again.

This time I knew I needed more support and reached out to a great bereavement counsellor and started to change the ways that I worked and expressed myself. But without effective tools, old patterns can be hard to break and I struggled to connect to my deeper needs with the desire to show up as “a leader” overshadowing everything else. I’d already let go of my bricks and mortar location and started coaching clients; first in their homes and then through the companies that they worked for. I supported leaders within banking and finance, law and construction but 4 years later despite their success my business was only striving not thriving and inside I know something was off.

My clients were making incredible breakthroughs but, like me, they felt frustrated and held back by the organisations they worked for who were not yet ready for the cultural shifts we willed them to have. Without proper structures in place we all began to feel exhausted and “running on empty”. I started to feel powerless and a failure, not “good enough” as a coach for my clients, unwanted by the companies I was working with and unloved and unappreciated by life. Despite friends and family wanting the best for me, I felt isolated, alone and chronically under supported; unable to share my feelings in a way that I thought anyone could understand.

I’d been tired and flat for a while and even Christmas didn’t really lift my spirits. I put my low mood down to the grey skies, January blues and my on-and-off-again single status. “I need a holiday”, I told myself, vaguely planning a winter break, “and to fall in love again!” Outwardly I put on a smile and continued to date but inwardly I felt overwhelmed at the thought of letting someone in. The adventurous, flirtatious spirit and boundless energy that took me around the world in my 20’s and propelled me to start my business in my 30’s felt like a distant memory and not who I was anymore. I felt detached, confused and disconnected – but still pushing and trying to give.

Then came the bombshell.

I found a lump – a large one – but when I visited my GP and asked to be fast-tracked for a mammogram she indicated that it’s size made it unlikely to be anything more sinister than a cyst. I was seen within 10 days and diagnosed with breast cancer a week later. The mass was so large that my medical team could only estimate it’s size until it was finally removed 11 months later but they guessed it had been growing for well over a year. I sought a second opinion but the treatment plan was clear: chemo, radiotherapy and a full mastectomy followed by rehab and recovery and more surgeries to boot.

Amongst the trauma and the shock something dormant inside of me finally woke up. I moved into action, transferred my care to one of the best cancer hospitals in the world and immediately learnt how to advocate on my own behalf. I found world-class surgeons who understood that my mental and emotional health was paramount; as was the body I was left with. I returned to my wellbeing roots and brought my essential oils out of retirement. Simple acts like inhaling a new blended combination became a gorgeous ritual to savour.

For a while fatigue and chemo fog made each day feel like I was climbing a mountain, but they also made life seem simple and less complex. Not going out helped me go within and with no energy to waste I became laser focused on joy – making happiness and healing my top priority. Whether it was eating a croissant, sitting by the river or just sleeping in a freshly made bed, I wanted my heart to sing! If I only had the energy to see someone for a short length of time I made sure our connection was clear.

My busy head became empty and I couldn’t hold a thought or muster an idea. But once I let go of the fear and trusted it was temporary, it was surprisingly peaceful. Even thinking about it now makes my breathing slow and my shoulders drop! I had regular massage, acupuncture and reflexology to help cope with the physical effects of my treatments and enrolled in a transformational coaching program to help my mental health. My sense of humour returned with a vengeance and I laughed and was silly, not caring who saw.

I started to unpack all the thoughts in my head and took responsibility for the beliefs and old stories around my identity that had been the soundtrack to my life. I learnt from a world-class leader whose research and methodology has supported over 100,000 women and tapped into a feminine power I didn’t know was there. I saw how my thinking could result in a positive outcome or sabotage my success and started to play with how it felt in my body to tell myself I was strong, amazing and worthy rather than weak, sick or frail.

Over the last year I’ve been able to see that my golden thread has always been to increase organisational productivity and reduce the risk that’s present for business and leaders, when we lead without due care, attention or compassion for ourselves. With the rising focus on mental health I’ve now proven success with a toolkit that I know sharpens emotional intelligence and builds resilience, and become a master at modelling an agile mindset and responding to fear. I now offer support to leaders navigating change – be that as part of a large scale business transformation, a major life transition or something in-between and learnt a way to deal with uncertainty which is responsive and results-orientated and gives a framework that offers a supportive structure to adapt.

I’m full of gratitude that I developed the self awareness to understand the mindset and leadership personality traits that didn’t serve me and thanks to an incredible medical team and a global community of leaders I’ve learnt to show up and be myself. No longer do I strive to be a leader who is perfect or pretend to hide my feelings. Instead I draw on tools that work for me and make more progress as a result.

Last year alongside hundreds of other women, I ran 10K through central London in my underwear to promote body confidence and although my head told me I was nuts the pride I felt from pounding the pavements supported by thousands of well-wishers definitely played a part in my final surgery and recovery just a month later. How we show up to live and lead is personal and we need the courage to do it our way. Having cancer took me the closest I’ve been to death and it was scary – but it also brought me back to life.

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