Surviving cancer and what I learned about it.
We have all faced cancer at one time in our life, either directly or by supporting a family member, friend or colleague. I don’t pretend this article will teach you how to handle this situation — as it is always a very personal journey — but I hope some words resonate with you.
Most of the time, you don’t have to face life-or-death issues, but you find yourself in inextricable situations. The learnings I got from surviving cancer apply in most of those cases.
We all experience fear. But we shouldn’t be consumed by it. Despite the threatening death sentence, the long painful medical treatment and the fear of never getting back to a ‘normal’ life, surviving this disease was the most gratifying combat I ever had to face. And I learned critical lessons from it.
At the end of 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was spotted early on but the cancer was spreading very fast, and required an aggressive treatment. I entered a long cycle of chemotherapy, and after 6 months I switched to a more moderate dose. But after 2 rounds of the new treatment, new cancerous cells appeared. At this point, my survival chance dropped down to 12%. I had to get tremendous doses of chemo and went on an emergency surgery to remove my breasts, without a drop of blood cells to support my recovery. After 3 very anxious months monitoring that the cancer was not expanding, I started X-ray therapy. The treatment was nothing compared to chemotherapy, and it went without any scratch. At the end of 2016, I was finally considered in remission. During the next 2 years, I had frequent analyses to check if there were no new symptoms.
Early this year, I received a letter from the French Social Security telling me that it’s been 5 years since I finished my cancer treatment and I’m now considered completely cured. Until then, I was considered a “chronic long-term illness” patient (“Affection longue-durée” in french). This label was written in all my medical files and countless other tax & financial documentation. It was reminding me of what I went through, which was something I didn’t think I wanted to remember for a long time. I wanted to close this chapter, never speak of it again and go on with my life. But the letter made me realise that this label was also proof that a combat had occurred and that I had won. I was therefore both relieved of the emotional baggage but remained unsatisfied about the non-recognition of the hardest fight of my life.
Enter the battle.
I read a book about Cicero a few years ago and that quote really resonated with me: “Sometimes you have to enter the battle to see the solution.” When I first learned about my cancer and the long treatment ahead, I asked my oncologist: “What happens if I do nothing?”. He replied bluntly: “if you do nothing, you’ll die.”
Most of the time, you don’t know the outcome of what you’re doing before doing it. But doing nothing is never the solution. It happens that the problem you’re facing seems unsolvable and that only bad choices come your way. But you need to consider that not choosing is actually choosing to do nothing. The time you take not acting on the problem you’re facing is a decision on its own, and it may be the worst one.
You’re the CEO of your life.
CEOs of a company are not doing everything by themself, they employ experts on the various subjects they need to tackle. It’s the same when you’re sick. Find the experts, interview them, and choose the one(s) that you feel more confident about. They will be the employees of your body for the next months and will fight the battle with you. Give them a chance and trust their competence. Accept that you’re not the smartest one in the room, and that you need help.
Being CEO also means that you are in charge of the ship. If one of them has lost your trust or you don’t think they’re making all the effort, fire them. As a CEO, you’re delegating the tasks you need fulfilled to the experts, but at the end the choice of who you hire is yours.
The optimism of will
My father’s mantra is a quote from Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” My education was based on this quote.
But we’re not our parents and I’ve always been a very optimistic person. Therefore, the second side of the quote is really what stuck with me.
Base your decisions and your actions on what you learn, conduct deep analysis and read all there is to read about a subject.That gives you the ‘brutal’ truth of data and probability. But then, the choice is yours. You decide if you want to take the path of what the data is showing you, or if you want to take the other way — thinking you can beat the bank. You can overcome a lot of things by willing to be better, to make a difference. You’re one in a million, but your will is your best ally, the secret weapon that can turn the odds for you, when you have little chance of winning.
Beat the odds.
12% chance of survival. That was the cards in my hands after 6 months of chemotherapy and two new cancer cells. If it had been a poker game, I would have folded. I was devastated and I was desperate. I shared that with my oncologist and he told me something I will never forget: “Forget the data. It either works or it doesn’t, simple as that. ” I went from 12% to 50/50 in a single sentence. I was the heads or tails coin of my destiny. And I was the only coin that mattered.
Then my oncologist added: “And if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else, until it works. The only thing I need from you is to trust the process, and believe it will work.” And that’s where I want to get. I couldn’t fight the data, but I could fight for my life. I was the one flipping the coin. I needed all my will to believe I could win this battle as the heroine of my personal movie. And you know the hero.ine always survives, right?
Don’t compromise on your values.
You can’t deflect all the bad things in life, and yes it’s unfair especially if you have done everything in your power to lower the risks, but life will test your resilience anyway. We have all faced moments where everything goes to sh*t. In work and in life, sometimes you get hit by something so hard you don’t think you’re gonna make it. Well, what I’ve learned is when everything else is gone — your body, your strength, even your will — the only thing left are your values; what you believe is the right thing to do.
You don’t see how to fix the mistake you’ve made, you are losing the project you’re in charge of, you are getting fired… it doesn’t matter as long as you’re following your principles and doing your best to solve the issue or at least make it a little better. Be angry, be desperate, but keep trying your best. When you get through the trial, and recover from it, you’ll be proud to have faced it without compromising on what you believe is right.
Cherish the fun.
First of all, be kind to yourself. We all have a tendency to only look at the bad things, and give little time to acknowledge successes. When you face a hard and painful situation, it’s actually vital to concentrate on the good things, however little they are.
I love to laugh. Out Loud. I love when I’m laughing so hard it makes me cry, and that my abs are hurting (yeah, not a big sports girl as you can see ;)).
Remember the last time it happened? Doesn’t it make you smile?
So when it occurs, I urge you to make a deliberate effort to keep this souvenir in your mind. I use code words and sometimes even write the story down to go back to it. Those moments don’t happen much, they come from nowhere, and are just so precious. Remembering them when you are hitting rock bottom is like a hand pulling you up to put you back together. Cherish them deeply.
Also, when you’re stuck and you don’t see the solution to the problem you’re facing, it’s OK to put it aside and focus on the little things that make you happy, or that will give you an instant reward. During my cancer treatment, it was getting my nails done, painting, taking piano lessons and eating ice cream (the only food that I actually could eat without throwing up).
Keep planning your life.
And take risks. Yes you’re in an uncomfortable situation, but it doesn’t mean you have to live in a bubble. I’m a deep and passionate traveler. During my third round of chemo, I had lost all my hair, I wanted to vomit 24/7 and I was laying down watching Netflix all day long. I couldn’t see myself doing that for the next months or so and just wait for the next round to make me sicker. I asked my oncologist if I could go on vacation.
“ Yes, where?”
- Mhh, I thought you were talking about vacation in France. It’s not very wise…
- But it’s possible right?”
2 weeks and a few shots of dopamine later, I was on the flight to Thailand. I couldn’t do much more than lay down at the beach and drink mojitos, but going on this trip was liberating and it gave me a boost. After that, I decided to plan a one-month “recovery trip” with my (future) husband across Asia and having this project in mind, following my passion, got me through the rest of my treatment.
You’re barely surviving if you’re not looking ahead. There’s sunlight after the storm. And looking at it, planning on it, is a sure way to keep your head up and wait serenely for a better future.
What doesn’t kill you… doesn’t kill you.
You all know the aphorism “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Well, this is completely untrue. Illness makes you weak, and you don’t get back from it with super powers. It doesn’t make you the Wisest of them all, and you don’t get all the answers about your life purpose from it. BUT what you get is an experience. As everything you spend time solving or working hard on, you learn from it. During that (painful) time, I perfected the skills I already had and acquired new ones. It’s an accelerated learning experience, something you would have the opportunity to grasp otherwise, in a more soothing and protective manner.
A lot of people thanked/asked me during interviews about my “life creator” experience on LinkedIn. When I put my motherhood experience in my resume, I didn’t think twice about it, to be honest. I was so happy taking the time to get and raise my daughter that I didn’t see the feminist act at first. And now that I hear it’s inspiring other moms to proudly add it to their resume, I see the power of sharing the journey.
Until now, I’ve felt I have not done that from my miracle of surviving cancer. That’s why I decided to add it to my description. I am proud I have fought this battle, and I’m proud of the lessons I learned from it. I am a cancer survivor.
To my husband, who was there for the worse, the best is upon us.
To my daughter, if she ever read this: you’re the reason I believe in miracles. I love you.