It’s 10:32 a.m. on day six of my new job as svp, talent and organizational development at Dentsu Aegis Network. I’m crouched in a conference room in lower Manhattan, blue Bic pen in hand, writing my diagnosis on a little yellow Post-It: breast cancer.
I’m healthy. I’m young. I have a two-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family. How is this possible? Did I eat too many gummy bears? Being an employee for 5.25 days makes me eligible for exactly how much leave? How much is this going to cost? I just started a big new job and have a team to lead, people to meet, impact to make. I don’t have time for this!
Looking back on it now, the year that followed was a blur of appointments, endless questions and note taking. There were over a hundred needle sticks, itchy wigs, lingering smells of lemon disinfectant from the waiting room at Sloan Kettering and less-than-discreet stares from strangers looking at my bald head. And, oh, the hot flashes. I wish surgical menopause on no one.
One thing I do remember clearly, however, was the support I received from those around me at work. When I sat in my brand new boss’ office, still in shock, saying the words, “I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I have no idea exactly what that means yet,” she didn’t ask me how much work I might miss or whether I’d be able to deliver on the sizeable mandate I’d signed up for when she hired me. She asked me what I needed. Take leave? Keep working? Need to play it by ear? Whichever way, I had her support. It became clear that my company was in it for the long haul. I had their trust.
So, I did cancer my way. It’s not for everyone, admittedly, but it got me through. I worked around my biweekly, then weekly, then daily treatments. A nurse wearing what appeared to be a hazmat suit, not a square inch of her skin exposed, injected a drug widely known as “the red devil” directly into my veins. Commuting into the city once my blood counts rebounded right before they’d plummet again and I’d be too sick to travel. Trying, all the while, not to touch the New York subway poles and always hoping a wind gust didn’t blow off my wig while walking down the street in Midtown.
Toward the end of my chemo regimen, I got so weak that I needed a blood transfusion and had to out myself on a conference call while at the hospital. “Sorry about the beeping,” I said. “I’m getting a blood transfusion, and the machine is noisy.”
It sounds crazy that I did all of these things, but it was how I coped. I didn’t want to lie around all day with nothing else to think about besides the disease, the side effects, the statistics. And that was my choice. A choice I was empowered by my company to make.
As a new leader, I didn’t want to introduce myself as a cancer patient. I wanted instead to lead with impact. So, I channeled my energy into work that was meaningful to me. In close partnership with our benefits and legal teams, I led the charge to update our parental leave policy to provide 16 weeks of fully paid time off for men and women welcoming a child into their lives upon date of hire. We now support nursing mothers traveling for work by shipping their breast milk home, free of charge. We piloted a coaching program to support parents returning to work from leave—because welcoming a child is a life-changing event that requires support. And we now offer six weeks of fully paid caregiver leave so employees don’t have to choose between caring for a sick loved one and lost wages.
It was also about competitive advantage. The war for talent is real, and if advertising and marketing don’t keep pace with the progressive policies in other industries, top talent will move on. Millennials, in particular, cite paid parental leave as an important benefit. With so many consultancies buying or building digital capabilities, our field of competitors has widened. While less likely to be lured by the free snacks and amenities offered by tech, millennials are watching to see who puts their money where their mouth is. With many of our competitors offering the minimal leave, this seemed a clear differentiator for us.
Leading the charge to make positive impact on people’s lives has given me tremendous pride and satisfaction, and it helped me to cope with my disease. After two surgeries, five months of chemotherapy, 25 rounds of radiation, 6,500 hot flashes (and counting) and a totally different head of hair (turns out chemo curls is a thing), I’m back up and running.
Most companies set out to change their clients, customers or patients’ lives, but the best ones seek to change the lives of their employees for the better, too. Our policies, decisions, approach and human touch impacts our people deeply, and when done right, can engender trust and loyalty that endures business cycles, transformation and, yes, even hot flashes.