The CANcer of Success: How cancer improved my quality of life and elevated my leadership

Woody Allen once said, “If ever, you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans”.  In my mind, pursuing my personal and professional goals was never a question of, “if”, but rather, “when” I’d achieve them.  Like many young women of my generation, I was convinced that I could have it all. I set and pursued my goals unapologetically.  In keeping my eyes in the proverbial prize, I worked countless hours, pursued my education, and perfected my craft.

Photo of Veronica Montalvo

Veronica Montalvo

Then, life happened. Six years ago at the age of 34, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. By all accounts, I was soaring (Go Eagles!) in my professional and personal life. Professionally speaking, I was the youngest executive at our university, and on track to be one of the youngest vice presidents in my industry. The online division that I oversee was exploding and in full-on expansion mode.  We were in the process of doubling in staff size and relocating our enrollment management operation. Meanwhile, on the personal front, I was planning an “expansion” of my own. I was married to my college sweetheart and had purchased our first home.  According to my life and 5-year-plan, I was right on track, and fast approaching my self-imposed deadline for having the first, of what I planned to be two children.  Suddenly, and just like that, all of my planning was for naught. How did this happen?  I had no time for it, but Cancer had clearly made time for me.

We’re all familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Thus far in my life, there is no greater testament to this than my bout with cancer.  Just as quickly as I was diagnosed, I had to believe that A. it would not kill me and B.  It would help make me a stronger person and leader.

I want to share some of the basic principles I cultivated and adopted to enable my professional wellness, while I also focused on my personal health and cancer recovery.

  1. Prepare for plot twists. The unexpected, by definition, will come at any time.   The only way to prevent the unexpected from becoming your biggest threat is to condition yourself for physical/mental agility and flexibility. Fighting cancer successfully required equal parts physical, emotional and spiritual strength.  Some days, one part would be more challenged than the others. Condition your mind to be both positive and quick to adapt. Where the mind goes, the body follows.  Always work to achieve your, “Plan A”.  However, be prepared to effectively plan for, quickly adapt to and execute your Plan B, C and D if need be.  Adaptability in the face of challenge and an inevitable need for change is not a failure. Your personal and professional health could depend on it.
  2. Cultivate your critical and creative thinking. My dreams haven’t changed, but the manner by which I can physically achieve them, has. Life did not instantly get easier when I became healthy. I just chose to look at it differently. What if you could no longer get to class, work or back home in the same direction or manner in which you had grown accustomed to?  Would you just never attend or return home again?! Of course not. Simply put, you would identify a different, better, faster, more convenient way of getting there. Be creative, think outside the box, or eliminate the box all together.
  1. Celebrate progression, not perfection.Being healthy is not synonymous with being free of “dis-ease”. You can strive for an A and be disappointed by an A-.  You could start a diet and lose weight, only to be disappointed because you lost 12 but not 15 pounds.  That should never stop any of us from trying.  Newsflash: Perfection doesn’t exist. Find the joy in and celebrate your journey. Every new day is a new beginning. Each one affords us an opportunity to beand dobetter than we did the day prior.  Every marathon has its milestones. Stop and appreciate how far you and those around you have come. It will motivate and re-energize you for the rest of the race.
  1. Work smarter not necessarily harder.For years, I was typically first in the office and often the last to leave, despite not necessarily always being the most productive. What if your time was limited and hard-stopped beyond your control? Will you try to do more with the time you have?  I now question my efforts, my commitments of time, and the energy expended.  Although I still work hard, I believe it’s more important that I work smarter. I make no excuses for having the highest of standards and make plenty of sacrifices to do what it takes to achieve my goals.  That said, there is no evidence that longer hours equate to accomplishing more.  Having sufficient time and energy translates into greater clarity and freedom. Becoming more efficient with my time has afforded me the time and energy to do more of what I love.
  1. Hire and groom your successor.   As a result of nearly 20 years’ experience in identifying and hiring talent, (formerly an Executive Recruiter and Staffing Manager) I already understood the importance of assembling a highly effective team. Fortunately, my team’s skill level and competency enabled me to effectively delegate key functions and responsibilities for critical succession planning, in anticipation for my medical leave. With greater ease, and the support of my home and Post Families, I was able to take the necessary time to recover.  Hiring and grooming great talent builds everyone’s confidence and the peace of mind that the operation will not be negatively impacted in the event of your absence as the leader or member of the team. Hiring and developing your successor is critical to the life of the business. It’s truly a successful leader’s gift that keeps on giving to the enterprise.
  1. Pick your battles effectively, and save your strength for the war. Respect your time and energy. Whether you’re fighting personal or professional “dis-ease”, it is critical that you ask, “Will this really matter or make a difference in a week, month and year from now? If the answer is no, then let it go, and focus on what will really matter.

This experience has taught me that if I’m capable of turning such a personal, life threatening, negative circumstance into an empowering, life altering, professionally enhancing opportunity, then there are few professional obstacles that I won’t overcome. Successful leaders recognize that we are students first. Learning is a life-long journey that we are fortunate to be on.  It is my hope that you will in some way benefit and learn from my personal diagnosis, without ever having to receive your own.  With the right attitude, support and will to succeed, you too, can put the “CAN” in cancer. Regardless of what personal/professional challenges you encounter, go forth confidently knowing that you can not only survive, but you can thrive!

 

 

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