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Being an Entrepreneur Saved My Life

“Write that down,” my husband urged. “It’s a great idea.” 


I grabbed a piece of scrap paper while he cleared our pancake mess, then scribbled down the main bits of our conversation. A few days later, we launched a new business from our kitchen and ended up building digital remote security systems for coin-operated laundromats.  


It was a great business, but what I didn’t realize was that entrepreneurialism was honing skills I would need many years later in my battle against cancer.


When I found a lump in my right breast, as hard and large as a walnut, I made an appointment for an exam the very next day. The doctor said the lump didn’t meet the characteristics of cancer and that she didn’t see any cause for concern. I was relieved, but my gut told me to get it checked anyway.  I knew my body and something didn’t add up.  


Lesson one is to take charge.  


An entrepreneur often doesn’t take the first answer, even if it’s from a professional. We like to find our own way and our own answers.  From the parking lot, I called for a mammogram and took the first available opening.


My lump was a rare form of aggressive cancer, the same strain that journalist Joan London is fighting, Triple Negative Breast Cancer or TNBC. The first doctor had been wrong. 


A week later, another doctor confirmed my diagnosis and proposed doing a mastectomy the following morning. “Sleep on it,” she said as I sat across from her, “and call me first thing.”  


On the drive home, it occurred to me that it was time to apply other lessons I’ve learned in building businesses over the past 20 years. The first doctor had been wrong, what about this one? A mastectomy tomorrow? I needed more information, fast.


Lesson two is to do your homework.


The second lesson I learned from entrepreneurialism is to gather good information quickly. Take too much time, or get it wrong, and your business may fail. In my fight against TNBC, I needed to act fast.    


I live in a rural area where there’s only one oncologist, a doctor who introduced me to the term frankenboob at my first appointment. Before I became an entrepreneur, I may have stuck with him because he appeared to be my only choice. Now I realize there are always other options.


By nature, entrepreneurs are persistent and resourceful. We have to tap every capability to get what we need, even if solutions seem impossible. We call, we research, we ask.


Lesson three is to ask for help.


Through persistence, I got into Stanford’s tumor board, a world renown comprehensive approach to healing cancer. They checked my body from head to toe and then started Neoadjuvant Chemotherapy, a very different approach from the direction of my local health care provider. 


This regimen would shrink my tumor, making a mastectomy unnecessary and allow pathologists to examine my tumor to see if the treatment was effective. For me, this less invasive choice was a wonderful option, and it would have been off the table had I not sought help.  


As an entrepreneur, I learned to find resources, to ask for help. When I develop businesses and need expertise I don't have, I seek it out. Often I can call business contacts to exchange ideas, but even if I have to pay for it, good advice can be the difference in a successful outcome. 


Lesson four is to make an investment.


New business ventures require investment: time, money, and energy. Skimping can bring on frustration and failure. Likewise, surviving cancer requires an enormous investment and it’s no time to skimp.  


Before starting treatment, I learned of an experimental therapy that prevents hair loss associated with chemotherapy. It involved freezing my head with rented caps chilled to -41C. On chemo days, I wore those caps for 7 hours. Ultimately I ended up losing my hair, but I’m glad I tried. 


Over the summer, an expert team at UCSF performed surgery and supervised my daily radiation treatments.  Many forces came together to make my treatment happen at these remarkable hospitals, but I had to be willing to do my part too. To take advantage of these lifesaving resources, I had to drive long distances, pay for hotels, and sacrifice time with my family.  In other words, I had to make an investment.


Lesson five is to stay positive.


In many ways, getting a cancer diagnosis is like starting a new business. At this point, I’ve made it through the crazy start up phase and am waiting for the payoff, which may or may not happen.  There was an overwhelming learning curve and that moment of self doubt, when a voice said, “you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” 


But there’s another voice that is louder, clearer, and more truthful. That voice says, “you’ve got this, you can figure this thing out.” As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned to feed that voice, a voice that now fuels my survival. 


I’ve learned in business to keep a positive attitude through colossal ups and downs. Staying upbeat through cancer is like that too, like trying to enjoy a Sunday drive when your gas tank is empty and all the indicator lights are flashing.  But, it can be done.  Attitude makes the difference, not just for myself, but for the people around me. 


I've learned to find the silver lining, which is there without exception.


It’s here with me through cancer too, even more beautiful, at times, in the obscurity of the clouds.

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