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How a cancer diagnosis pushed me to thrive like never before

In life, there comes a time when we have to ask: are we merely surviving...or are we thriving?

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

In 2010, on the anniversary of my mother’s death from cancer, I received the heart-stopping diagnosis that changed everything. If you’ve never received a bad report from a doctor (and I truly hope you haven’t), suffice it to say the experience is unlike anything you’ll ever know. In many ways, you feel every bit like the deer caught in the headlights—shocked and paralyzed with fear while one simple thought slithers through your mind: Is this it?

My cancer diagnosis was a massive wakeup call for me. After all, as anyone who’s been in a similar situation can no doubt assert, when you face a life-threatening illness or trauma, you’re very much reminded of all the things you wanted to do with your life. Time suddenly becomes ever more precious as you reflect on how you’ve spent the years behind you, as you deeply cherish every minute of the present, and as you find yourself craving like never before the spool of time that has yet to unwind before you. Your future.

None of us truly ever believe that our future is something that can so easily be taken away from us. In many ways, the majority of us go through life thinking ourselves invincible. Fatal accidents and terminal illnesses are things we believe happen to other people but never us. For whatever reasons, we think ourselves immune. We subscribe to the belief that we’ll have all the time in the world to pursue the things we most want to accomplish and to steadily build the life of our dreams.

I say this because I once thought the same. Then, at the age of 42, my head-on collision with cancer taught me that I wasn’t nearly as invincible as I’d always thought.

I’d like to tell you that I always saw the opportunities for learning and growth in the months that followed as I underwent surgery and treatment, but then…that wouldn’t be the truth, now would it? The fact of the matter is that sometimes, it was simply enough to survive each day. Indeed, I can vividly remember days when I couldn’t see a future for myself at all, when I wasn’t certain I’d recover from the cancer or from the radiotherapy that was regularly burning and scarring my body.

However, when the pain would subside, I’d remember who I was. In my work as a consultant and coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 25 years, I’m equipped with extensive knowledge of change, emotional intelligence, and human behavior. I realised I had all the tools already inside me therefore to not only get through my cancer treatment but to also move forward, to begin taking back the reins of my destiny to create a new future for myself, one where I was living intentionally and fulfilling my purpose by utilizing my skills, talents, and gifts for the betterment of others.

It was time to get rid of the things that weren’t being of service to this vision (doubts, anxieties, despair) and re-engage the things that were going to get me to where I wanted to go (hope, conviction, and belief—among others). My aim therefore became to not just survive cancer—but to truly thrive, to use this experience as a springboard for unimaginable growth.

And that’s precisely what I did. Was it always easy? Of course not. Were there impossibly difficult days at times? Yes, there most certainly were. But when the smoke from one battle or another finally cleared, I was able to use techniques I’d learned over the course of my career (techniques I regularly spoke on) to rediscover my optimism and regain the energy I needed to cope with my situation, all the while taking stock of the lessons I was learning along the way. Now, if you had told me years ago that this crucible of mine, this journey with cancer, would help me sharpen my resilience skills and allow me to emerge as a thought leader and sought-after expert on the subject of change and the areas it overlaps, I might’ve laughed.

As it turned out, though, this was the very turn my life took, and though the road has been fraught with trials and tribulations, I can honestly say I’m proud of the path behind me. It’s shaped me into who I now am and has allowed me to thrive as a resilient individual with the skills I need to make the most of any situation. At the end of the day, change truly is a teacher more than anything else.

And this change I was experiencing had one more lesson in store for me.

While undergoing treatment, I had plenty of time to reflect on the fragility of life and everything I’d ever taken for granted (which sadly amounted to a great deal). At one point, however, I simply decided that enough was enough. I realised how miraculous a gift time is to each and every one of us, and I no longer was interested in just existing here on earth. I knew there was far too much potential inside of me for that kind of living. So to start, I was done with putting off certain dreams of mine “for another day”. It was time to live in the moment and enjoy life while it was still mine to enjoy. (World travel had always been one of those dreams, and I’m happy to report that my husband and I now take an overseas trip every year for at least a month or more).

Another thing that interested me was finally answering the call to live out my true purpose. Earlier in my career, I’d realised how much I enjoyed coaching and developing individuals. As such, I was passionate about releasing the potential of leaders, teams, and organisations on a new level.

The question was what form my ambitions would eventually take, and at the beginning of 2012, I finally had my answer: I would go into business for myself.

For most people, becoming an entrepreneur would probably be the last thing on their mind during or in the wake of cancer treatments, but in many ways, I was no longer the woman I’d been prior to my diagnosis. My crucible had caused the moving parts within me to interact in new ways and forge a new person: someone who was more resilient, more ambitious, more driven, and more passionate about purposeful living. I could no longer settle for anything less than living a fulfilling and meaningful life, and part of that fulfilment and meaning by all means had to derive from sharing the lessons I’d learned about change and resiliency with others.

That’s how my firm Shaping Change was born, a consulting practice in the field of Organisational Development and Human Resources where I help leaders and managers leverage the talents and skills of their people. While it was scary to leave my corporate role to walk the road of entrepreneurship, I knew in my heart it’s what I was being called to do. Perhaps on the outside, it didn’t make sense. Perhaps it even seemed crazy to others. But that was all right with me. I had to trust in myself and in my abilities anyway, and as it turned out, doing so paid off. Within a year, I’d created a 6-figure profit through Shaping Change, and every year since then, the firm has grown in new and in incredible ways, affording me opportunities I could’ve never fathomed at the onset of it all.

All because I made the decision early on not just to survive…but to thrive

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