Parul Somani: “Compassion for yourself”

Compassion for yourself: The emotions will come in waves, and are sometimes triggered when you least expect it. Be kind to yourself during this rollercoaster and protect your mental wellbeing by reminding yourself all for which you have to be thankful, and maintaining faith that you will emerge stronger from the experience. Cancer is a […]

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Compassion for yourself: The emotions will come in waves, and are sometimes triggered when you least expect it. Be kind to yourself during this rollercoaster and protect your mental wellbeing by reminding yourself all for which you have to be thankful, and maintaining faith that you will emerge stronger from the experience.


Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Parul Somani.

Parul Somani is an inspirational speaker promoting resilience and self-advocacy to help strengthen mental wellbeing, navigate life’s challenges, and live an authentic life. She has presented keynotes and facilitated seminars for global employers, conferences, and nonprofits, authored a cancer blog which has been read in ~85 countries, and been awarded honors by the American Cancer Society and others for her patient leadership. Parul holds degrees from MIT and the Harvard Business School, and previously had a 15+ year career in management consulting and Silicon Valley.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

I’m an immigrant living the American dream. I was born in India, but my parents moved my sister and me to the States when I was ~3 years old for a better education and future. Growing up in the 1980s-1990s in the Pacific Northwest, my childhood was a story of two cultures. While one day I might have been playing basketball, competing in a debate tournament, or performing a drum solo, the other I might have been training in Indian classical dance, learning Hindi, or watching Bollywood movies. Seeing my parents juggle multiple jobs and entrepreneurial ventures to support us and persevere through their own hardships, I learned the value of work ethic and grit. My parents established a high bar for academic excellence early on, but raised me with the freedom and independence of defining my own dreams.

While I don’t remember when I first learned the word, “cancer” had a presence throughout my childhood. I was still playing with dolls when my mother wore a wig due to her treatment for early onset breast cancer. Whether it be cultural norms or other constraints, we never discussed my mother’s diagnosis outside of our immediate family — for decades. Not even years later, when I was a teenager, when my mother spent months living in India to care for my grandfather after his late stage cancer diagnosis. As much as I was shaped by what I experienced in childhood, I was equally shaped by what I did not. By not seeing open and honest discussion about the diagnosis, I learned how important it is to be willing to share and show vulnerability. I always knew that if I were to ever be diagnosed with something like cancer, I would share it with the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote that has been very relevant in my recent life is “Tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become part of someone else’s survival guide.” A friend of mine shared this saying with me when I announced my pivot to become an inspirational speaker, and I love it because it perfectly captures my belief that I can help others navigate their challenges by openly sharing how I faced my own.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?

I was holding my newborn in bed, still struggling to walk from my c-section, when I received the call. Not long before, I had been at a 38 week ultrasound for my baby when I felt a lump in my chest. Despite being told it was likely a clogged milk duct since I was only 31 years old and pregnant, I insisted on a referral for an ultrasound and biopsy. I never made it to that appointment though because my water broke soon after and my newborn arrived 2 weeks early. If that wasn’t chaotic enough, she had breathing problems soon after delivery, had to be intubated, and we had to be transported by ambulance to another hospital with an acute NICU. Armed with the knowledge that I carry a BRCA1 mutation, resulting in a high risk of breast cancer, we coordinated our own appointment for a biopsy at the new hospital. My husband wheeled me from the NICU to the breast clinic, where the breast surgeon also assured us that the tissue felt soft and was “likely just a clogged milk duct.” Relieved, we headed back to the NICU after receiving frantic calls from my mother wondering where we were since it was time for the baby’s feeding. Days later, my daughter was thankfully discharged with a clean bill of health and we were able to go home.

I knew it was a bad sign as soon as I saw that the breast surgeon was calling on a Saturday. I handed my baby to my mother and answered the call, learning that “the mass is malignant after all.” I had triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), one of the most aggressive types, and would require (at minimum) chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and breast reconstruction. I only began to tear up when she said “Obviously, this means you will need to stop breastfeeding soon.” It was only after I got off the phone that I dropped my head in my hands and started bawling.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

The scariest part was the uncertainty. While the breast surgeon believed the cancer to be early stage, we wouldn’t really know until we assessed if it had spread to the lymph nodes or not. The biopsies of my lymph nodes were inconclusive, however, and the doctors didn’t know if the suspicious swelling was due to the cancer spreading or my lymphatic system’s response to my recent c-section and other biopsies. They wouldn’t know for sure until surgery, which would be months later after chemotherapy. I got my PET scan results a couple of weeks after my initial diagnosis, confirming the cancer had not spread elsewhere in the body. It was only then that we had comfort in knowing the cancer was not Stage 4. I still remember how overwhelming that relief felt, and the realization of how much my life had changed when the definition of “good news” was to find out that I’m not dying after all.

Despite how long it took to understand the full scope of the diagnosis, I remained steadfast in my view that I would ultimately be fine. Even when I had to share the news with my husband, that his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the same age his birth mother passed away from the same disease, my response to his distressed reaction was “It’s going to be fine — you won’t need to do anything without me. The next few months will be tough, but I’m going to be fine.” You can call it hope, optimism, denial, or delusion, but envisioning any other outcome was simply unimaginable.

How did you react in the short term?

My initial response was to go into warrior mode. My husband and I often talk about how “hope is not a course of action,” and we found it empowering to do what we could: researching the diagnosis, lining up 2nd opinions, figuring out what questions to ask, understanding our insurance and employer benefits, etc. One could drown under the weight of the uncertainty and fear, so it was more energizing to focus on what we could control.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

The first month was pure survival mode. It took that long to understand the scope of the diagnosis, identify my care team, and align on a treatment plan. It was only once that was done that I was able to think about how to cope with this new reality. To maintain my physical health, I went on walks with my dad (when the fatigue wasn’t so strong that I felt like I’d been hit by a truck) and only ate the healthy food that my mom prepared for me. When it came to coping mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, what I found most helpful were: remaining connected with friends and family to fuel the natural extrovert within me; sharing my experience real-time in a blog titled “New Job. New Baby. New Cancer.” with the intention of being candid and raw, but also positive and uplifting; and practicing gratitude for all that I had to be thankful for despite the diagnosis.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

One of my hardest parts of treatment was the realization that I couldn’t be there for my newborn in her early months the way I had been for her older sister. I wouldn’t be able to continue nursing her. I wouldn’t be able to take her to mommy and me music classes. I wouldn’t even be able to lift her up for weeks after each surgery. Fortunately, my parents were visiting for the baby’s delivery when I received my diagnosis, and their trip turned into a one-way ticket for the next six months. Along with my husband, my mother not only helped care for me throughout treatment, but she was also the mother to my newborn that I just couldn’t be at that time. Knowing my young baby, who had just given us such a huge scare after her own birth, would be surrounded by love, allowed me the freedom to focus on my own healing.

In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?

It would want me to remember the power of self-advocacy. What if I hadn’t gotten genetic testing and learned of my BRCA1 mutation? What if I had dismissed the lump as a clogged milk duct? Given I couldn’t even feel the lump anymore once my milk came in after the delivery, what if I hadn’t gotten a biopsy done until I felt the lump again when I stopped nursing a year later? Just how different would my prognosis have been then? My cancer diagnosis wasn’t a dark cloud — catching it early was the silver lining. My cancer will always be a reminder that our intentions, our actions, and our self-agency can make all the difference.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?

My cancer helped me find my way back to myself again. I was 14 years old when I wrote a paper on my “life philosophy” covering my views on everything from family and career to love and aging. Even then, I wrote “By sharing my life stories and lessons with others, I can prevent them from making any of the mistakes I did.” I had always wanted to make a difference in the world by helping and inspiring others. By the time of my diagnosis, however, I had spent years on the corporate career track, neglecting my health and working too many long hours on projects for which I had no passion. We often talk about how chemotherapy ages the body, but I believe it also matures the mind. My cancer gave me a revelation in my 30s that people don’t often experience until their 60s — an awareness, if not reminder, of my priorities and the legacy I want to leave in this world. This realization drove me to pivot my career, become an inspirational speaker, and chart a path to sharing my life stories and lessons with others.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

As a patient, I shared my experiences in my blog, as well as in films on survivorship and mindset. As a survivor and caregiver, I have counseled dozens of people through their own cancer diagnoses, sharing my experiences and helping them understand what questions to ask and how to best advocate for themselves. As a BRCA1 carrier and former genomics executive, I champion the power of actionable genomics and precision medicine, as well as how the healthcare system needs to be improved to support it, by speaking at events for organizations like the World Economic Forum’s Global Precision Medicine Initiative, the HLTH conference, and the American Cancer Society. As a business leader, I serve on the advisory board for the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and healthcare companies, bringing a unique perspective as a strategist, operator, patient, and caregiver. Lastly, I work with employers and organizations to empower their members to build their resilience and strengthen their mental wellbeing.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

There is so much I’ve learned about cancer, but a few of the biggest misconceptions are that:

  1. “I’m too young to get cancer.”: My prognosis, and life story, would be entirely different had I believed the guidance that my lump was likely a clogged milk duct since I was “too young and pregnant.” In the years since, I’ve met countless women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in their 30s and early 40s — earlier than when annual mammograms are recommended. Some of the most painful stories are of the women who received Stage 3 diagnoses because they (and sometimes their doctors!) dismissed the lump as nothing to worry about for more than a year. Be aware of changes in your body and advocate for yourself if you believe something could be wrong.
  2. “Cancer is cancer.”: There is no one type of cancer or one way to treat it. There are critical differences in facing an early stage diagnosis vs. a late stage one, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Similarly, even within the same category of cancers, the sub-types are not all created equally. The clinical trials, the recommended therapies, etc. all differ based on the characteristics of the tumor. Seeking out an oncologist who specializes in my specific sub-type, a triple-negative breast cancer, was key in ensuring my treatment plan would have a higher likelihood of success.
  3. “It’s a fight.”: People often talk about “fighting cancer” as if it were a battle, that we can win as long as we’re strong enough, positive enough, and fight hard enough. We don’t “fight” cancer, we “face” it. We recognize how scary it can be, we do our best to navigate the healthcare system to treat it, and if we’re lucky, we have the opportunity to learn from it.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

The five things you need to navigate cancer after a recent diagnosis are:

  1. A bias towards action: It’s perfectly normal to be shocked, to cry, and to wonder how life can be so unfair. These feelings are natural and important to process. It is empowering, however, to focus energy towards action. By focusing on understanding the diagnosis, learning from others familiar with such situations, and identifying what questions to ask, I felt like I was able to maintain some control, in an otherwise very uncontrollable situation.
  2. The time to find the right care team for you and your diagnosis: It was exactly one month from the time I learned of my diagnosis to when I began neoadjuvant chemotherapy, and that was the longest month of my life. Knowing that this fatal thing was growing inside me, all I wanted to do was get it out. I had been advised, however, that months matter, but days do not. Taking the time to do the research and get multiple opinions to find an oncologist with a deep expertise for my specific tumor type, helped me identify the treatment center and care team that felt most right for me. Given how much trust I would be putting into those providers, and time I would be spending at the clinic, these were critical decisions.
  3. A treatment plan that is your “path of least regret”: The problem with being comfortable with data is that we got caught up in a never-ending cycle of research and second-guessing. We reached a point where we were reading and comparing the details of clinical trials to essentially identify our own treatment plan, only to further confuse ourselves since no perfect data exists for what we need to know. I soon realized that determining a treatment plan was more art than science. Not only did different oncologists have different recommendations, but I was being asked what I prefer! After days of debate and research, I realized my decision came down to one powerful question: What would be my path of least regret? Specifically, if the cancer were to recur in 5 years, what course of action would I least regret given the information at hand? Working with my care team to develop a treatment plan that was my “path of least regret” gave me the peace of mind I was seeking going into treatment.
  4. A helping hand: Navigating a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming for both the patient and their family, and it truly takes a village. This is the time to be willing to ask for help, and accept the help and support that is offered to you. Oftentimes, people want to help, but just don’t know how. Turn to your friends and family and let them know what you need — whether it be groceries and meals, transportation to appointments, childcare help, a shoulder to cry on, or even just a welcome distraction.
  5. Compassion for yourself: The emotions will come in waves, and are sometimes triggered when you least expect it. Be kind to yourself during this rollercoaster and protect your mental wellbeing by reminding yourself all for which you have to be thankful, and maintaining faith that you will emerge stronger from the experience.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

The movement I want to inspire is one where resilience and self-advocacy are better understood, valued, and instilled in people of all ages. Challenges and hardships will be inevitable, but the more people who can face those with learned resilience and a sense of agency, the stronger the mental wellbeing of our collective society will be.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to meet with Brené Brown! In her book, Rising Strong, Brené shared that her vision for her career was to “start a global conversation about vulnerability and shame.” I would like to do the same for resilience and self-advocacy, not just due to the role they played in my cancer journey, but because of how they have helped me face and navigate everything from daily stress to unexpected curveballs throughout my life.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can check out my website (parulsomani.com) to learn more about my mission and work, to subscribe to my newsletter for updates and educational content relating to resilience, self-advocacy, and more, or to contact me regarding a speaking engagement. I’m also on social media: LinkedIn (Parul Somani), Instagram (@pdsomani), Facebook (@DesigningSilverLinings), and Twitter (@pdsomani). I look forward to hearing from them!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Thank you for sharing my story, and helping it serve as a survival guide for others!

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