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When Life Gets Hard

November 20, 2018

My husband, Jeff, was diagnosed in September 2017 with Stage 3 esophageal cancer at the age of 44. He went through chemo and radiation every day for 5 weeks and then endured a 7-hour surgery that removed most of his stomach and esophagus as well as almost 50 surrounding lymph nodes. This surgery left him in critical condition, learning to eat and walk again.

In the summer, we hoped the worst was behind us. We had an amazing vacation visiting Golden Lake, Ontario, with Jeff’s brother’s family. This is a special place as my husband’s parents had a cottage here that was sold after his Mom died and before his Dad passed away. Jeff, I and our girls as well as our Golden Retriever Hunter continued our vacation to a beautiful cottage in the Mont Tremblant region of Quebec. During this time away, I could see glimmers of Jeff getting stronger from the surgery. It felt like we could finally see the light at the end of the darkened tunnel. Maybe, just maybe, we could start making plans for our future again.

But on the evening of Sunday, August 26 (ironically the same date 10 years earlier our eldest daughter was conceived), Jeff underwent a laparoscopic surgical procedure with cameras going into his stomach to see the status of his health. Doctors had suspicions the cancer returned based on a CT scan, but they weren’t sure and gave us the option of doing this test. We wanted to know.

So here I was on a late summer Sunday evening, sitting in a surgical waiting room with its lights off as no scheduled surgeries happen on Sunday evening. Only the light through the windows into the hospital atrium was gleaming through the glass. I was the only person in the room. I prayed. I meditated, and I prayed some more. Then the surgeon entered the room, still in full surgical gear with the blue cap and gown. He looked solemn. “Shit,” I thought to myself but tried not to go there.

Surgeon Paul sat down across from me and said, “It’s not good.” He continued to tell me that the cancer had returned and was now throughout Jeff’s stomach which is diagnosed as secondary peritoneal cancer. This cancer is incurable.

I listened very quietly. I surprised myself by how composed I remained by asking questions like “what types of treatment can improve his quality of life?” and “how much time does he have left?” “Months,” Doctor Paul responded, as he gazed down.

And then, the emotion came. Tears started to fall as I thought about the implications of this on our girls, on Jeff, on me. I quickly got it together as Dr. Paul led me down a brightly lit corridor to the surgical recovery room. Before we got to the blue privacy sheets around Jeff’s bed, I asked if Jeff knows. Dr. Paul nodded.

I grabbed the blue drape and pulled it open to see Jeff sobbing, clutching a box of Kleenex. When he saw me, he repeatedly told me how sorry he was that he is going to be leaving me. Leaving me alone to raise our two young children, ages 7 and 9, by myself. Sorry that he is going to be leaving me – a woman who loves him so much.

I tried my best to comfort him, still in shock that this is really happening. I wanted to pinch myself hard to wake up. How can this be happening to this man I love? A man who is a vegetarian, a star hockey player, a triathlete, a dedicated husband and Dad as well as an amazing Accounting Professor at Humber College.

Jeff has focused so much of his life on doing the right things. Studying hard at school to get top marks. Eating right and exercising, always being kind to others. I don’t understand why this is happening to him. His cancer serves as a reminder that we really don’t have as much control as we think we do.

When Jeff and I returned home, we sat our girls down. It is important to us that we are honest with them throughout our journey, but with as positive a spin as possible. We knew that putting a positive spin on this would be almost impossible.

“Is the cancer all gone?” our 9-year-old asked, knowing that Jeff had gone in for a test. I look at their innocent faces as they sit hopeful, waiting for our response. “The cancer is back and in my stomach now,” Jeff shared. His bottom lip trembling as he watched their faces start to crumble in confusion.

“Are you going to die?” asked our 7-year-old. Jeff couldn’t answer that question so I held their hands and said that “Daddy has a cancer that we are told by the doctors won’t go away. We are still searching for miracles, but the doctors have told us that this cancer could cause Daddy to die.”

Then the tears flowed freely as we answered questions about who would walk them down the aisle when they get married; will Daddy live for another summer, and even things like can I have Dad’s cell phone when he leaves us.

So, where are we at now? Jeff started palliative chemo in September which takes place every two weeks. The goal here is no longer cure, but quality of life for the time he has left. We are aware of a surgery that is done in the U.S. and in Western Canada that we are hopeful Jeff could qualify for if his chemo contains the cancer to his stomach. This could help extend his longevity. We will know more after his next ct scan. Time will tell.

But for now, we focus on what’s most important to us. We went to Disney World in September. Jeff, miraculously, is an assistant coach for our daughter’s ringette team. There are a lot of times he is quite sick, but we try our very best to be real about our feelings and make the most of each day. And that is the most any of us can really do anyway.

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How To Become A Vulnerable Leader Who Resonates With Your People

April 30, 2018

“With each passage of human growth we must shed a protective structure. We are left exposed and vulnerable, but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.” Gail Sheehy.

I can’t help but be struck by the irony of me writing an article on vulnerability. The “I” of 10 years ago would have known very little about this topic. In fact, I might have thought for me to show vulnerability was a sign of weakness, even though, I very much respected those who demonstrated this quality. I just seemed to have my own set of rules for myself.

But as I am sure you have found in your own life, time and experience shapes us and moulds us into who we were meant to be versus who we planned on being.

I must say that as I continue to recover from a brain injury of almost 6 years now, I have heard whispers within my mind of lessons that I am learning through each stage. Patience, letting go, mindfulness, compassion and gratitude have all been my gifts through the pain. My latest gift comes through my husband’s cancer journey. And this is vulnerability.

How to Become A More Vulnerable Leader:

1. Remember we are all people first and employees, leaders second, regardless of how attached some of us may become to our jobs. When we see people in this context, it allows us to connect with people at a deeper level and see each other as human beings trying to do our best. We all fail. We are all vulnerable. We all want to be loved and accepted, no matter how ‘strong’ someone may appear in the workplace. Human beings want compassion, so by treating each other with compassion, it will help you to deepen your connection.

2. Share your story. Perhaps a colleague may ask about your weekend. We have the opportunity to share a very real account of some of the emotions we felt during our personal time versus just a generic rundown of the events. This could be a feeling of pride for your daughter when she tried her best at a dance recital or how you felt like a bit of a fool when you tried taking up golf for the first time. When we can share our emotions with people, it is putting yourself out there in a more vulnerable way and allows others to connect with you at a deeper level.

3.Use presentations as a chance to share more than business information. I love listening to people tell stories. There is always an opportunity to insert a short story that can tie back to your topic to drive home a point and use as an opportunity for your audience to get to know you better as a person. This will help differentiate you and make your presentation more memorable for the right reasons.

But, it does take guts and vulnerability to change-up a cookie cutter, formal business presentation and insert a personal quality to it.  Presenters may feel like they don’t want to waste their audience’s time talking about themselves or fear others will think their stories are stupid. Again, if it is a quick story that you can relate back, I think you’ll find it is worth the risk to add a personal dimension to even the most quantitative of presentations.

4. Tell someone in the workplace that you care about them and their wellbeing.  Don’t make assumptions they know.

5. Share your failures with others and talk about the lessons learned. I think we tend to put people in senior positions on pedestals, imaging that their work and home lives run seamlessly and that they rarely make mistakes.

To me, the onus is on the senior leadership to tell their people how life really is and own their mistakes and lessons learned from these failures. Sharing our mistakes is a great way to help nurture future talent, particularly young women who may glass ceiling themselves at Director level as they fear they couldn’t perform at that impossible level of perfection. Women tend to be so critical of themselves. Give your employees a real look into how you make your life work for you.

6. Work and live mindfully. Mindfulness helps you to be aware that you are feeling vulnerable in the first place. Otherwise your busyness will dull down your emotional experience of life and you will not have a chance of showing the emotions you don’t even realize you are experiencing.

8. Stop pushing. Sometimes extremely driven, ambitious people have a goal and they keep going at it over and over again, even if after a while they get the feeling they are pushing too hard. Often the harder we push, the further away we are moving from achieving our goals.

If you are like me, I believed that “hard work= results” and before my brain injury and lessons learned, I didn’t know any other way to succeed.  When you feel like the harder you push, the worse things are going. I encourage you to pull back. Take time to reflect. Sometimes pulling back and allowing yourself to feel vulnerable by taking your foot off the gas pedal is the best thing you can do.

Final Thought:

I am a big proponent of listening to our gut feelings and expressing the ideas we hear inside our minds.  I think way too often we sit on these ideas, afraid they wouldn’t be received well by others.  I say “share your thoughts,” “be vulnerable!” Sometimes, you will fail, but I bet more often than not, you will succeed. And being vulnerable at work is the key to letting your authentic leadership style shine!

Visit Potential Unlimited’s Web site to find out more about my Coaching Programs and How to Become a More Vulnerable Leader

Surviving Day-by-Day When Life Gets Tough

April 4, 2018

There is something raw about finding out that one of the people you love most in the world could die. Sure, I know we will all die one day. But, this is a bit different.  When we got the news from the doctor in the Fall that my spouse has advanced esophageal cancer, a cancer I’d never even heard of before, it sent our world spinning.

My husband, Jeff, started his chemo-radiation (which is doing chemo and radiation at the same time) for 5 weeks back in November. He fared quite well throughout until he got to the last week. The compounded effect of the treatment began to wreak havoc on his body. His heart rate was going through the roof when he went from sitting to standing. He faced severe dehydration because he couldn’t keep even the smallest amount of food or drink down. And, the doctors discovered a blood clot in his lungs.

The heaviness of his situation reached a breaking point when he collapsed onto the kitchen floor one day when I was upstairs and he smashed his head off the ceramic tile. When I came running, I could see as I stood at the top of the stairs, he was lying unconscious by the fridge with our children’s artwork lying on the floor around him. In an attempt to stop his fall, he must have reached for the fridge. But his efforts were in vain, and he was too weak. All he could do was drag his fingertips along the surface of the front of the fridge before he went crashing to the floor.

I called 9-1-1 and he was hospitalized for 5 days that month. This was not long before Christmas. By mid- January, he began to get stronger. Jeff was at the gym lifting weights and doing cardio. He was gearing up for a surgery to remove most of his esophagus and stomach, making a small stomach pouch in his chest.

His surgery took place on January 31, 2018, by Toronto General Thoracic Surgeon, Dr. Gail Darling. We arrived at the hospital for 6 a.m. Watching him be wheeled away for his surgery, I clutched my heart and just stood in this empty hospital stall, praying, knowing there is a chance this might not go well, desperately wanting this to be the start of our new chapter. But, just not knowing.

When I saw Jeff’s surgeon around 3:30 p.m. that day, she told me the surgery was now over and it went well.  I jumped up and hugged her. She hugged me back even tighter.

When I finally got to see Jeff over an hour later, he was in the ICU where he would stay for a while. He had about 20 tubes coming out of him. He was really groggy and in pain. The kind of pain where you can barely express it because even trying to move or talk makes it hurt even more. I just sat with him in silence and held his hand.

Here began our journey to make him stronger.  I stayed downtown for the time Jeff was at the hospital, with my Mom taking care of the kids. Each day, I helped him with his rehabilitation efforts. I would do anything to help him heal and he was determined to get well. Jeff worked so hard.

A few weeks later, we received the pathology report. This is the summary of all the ‘stuff’ they took out of Jeff during the surgery that they biopsied.  At this stage, the hope is that the chemo and radiation prior to the surgery got all the cancer and this surgery was to try to ensure it didn’t come back. This kind of cancer has a high recurrence rate.

Jeff and my eyes raced through the report, seeing negative biopsies for many organs. Yes! Negative is good. This means no cancer. Then we got to the section on the lymph nodes. One of the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer and there was also cancer showing up in the blood vessels as well as scant tumour cells at the site of the primary cancer in the esophagus.  We were crushed. Yes, this ‘stuff’ is taken out, but it does leave the question for us and doctors about what might be in Jeff’s body that wasn’t taken out. All it takes is one microscopic cancer cell somewhere to start up.  And we were told by Jeff’s doctors that if the cancer comes back, it is incurable.  This message hit heavy like a hammer to my heart.

When we look at our girls, we feel scared. We know that we are on a healing journey now. And I really do pray this is all behind us. But, I know there is a chance it is not.  My mind sometimes goes to places of ‘what if’ about the future and it scares me so deeply to my core.  But, then I remind myself ‘what if’ can also mean what if this is all behind us. What if we really do live happily ever after together and have learned some, albeit painful, but important life lessons from this experience.

Today, I am choosing to focus on the now. Taking life day by day. To use my lessons learned through my brain injury around mindfulness, gratitude, even patience as Jeff continues to heal, to be kind to ourselves and to not become overwhelmed by the possible scenarios.

What are my takeaways from this experience thus far? First, the importance of self-care including daily exercise, meditation, proper nutrition and talking to friends/family as a part of staying sane in the midst of this crazy, turbulent time.  It is often when we are the busiest that we need self-care the most.

Another lesson is to not just be open to help, but to ask for it.  This is definitely tough for many people to do. But what I now see is that people really care, whether it is about us and our work projects or our personal lives, and they want us to let them in.  And, feeling supported is the best way to set ourselves and others up for success.

We all have our stories. Through this journey, I have had the opportunity to hear from many people who are going through stuff.  We all face highs and lows. We all feel love, fear and pain at some time or another. We can choose to deal with this ourselves and close off from the world with our heads down, or open ourselves up to others. I choose to tell our story. To stand in our imperfections and feel vulnerable, hoping that by sharing our journey, it could help others who are struggling with something in their own lives. To put a spotlight on what is most important because I know we all get busy in our lives and it is so tempting to switch onto autopilot mode and take what’s most important for granted. And maybe, just maybe, by sharing our story, my heart will heal a bit more too.

My Special Out-of-Office Alert for this Holiday Season

December 19, 2017

I just finished writing my out-of-office message for the holidays. I wanted to share it with you and encourage you to write your own real message.

Season’s Greetings.

I am out of the office from Monday, December 25 and returning on Monday, January 8. I am unable to respond to your email right now because I plan to be lounging in my PJs with my kids and husband.

I hope to be playing in the snow and then sipping a hot beverage with my loved ones, cuddled under a blanket by the fire. I plan to enjoy the small things that really are the big things.

Since my husband was diagnosed with cancer in September, he has made his way through 4 chemo and 23 radiation treatments. He is now resting up before his big surgery in the New Year, with hopes of curing his esophageal cancer.

So, if I check my email, it will be because I want to and not because I “should.” My wish for you this holiday season is to spend your time doing what makes you happy. Time, my friends, is our most valuable gift of all.

My Husband’s Cancer

October 30, 2017

 

To see a picture of my family on social media, we look almost perfect. Two beautiful, blue-eyed blonde little girls, an athletic, handsome husband and of course, the quintessential golden retriever puppy and me. Social media is this century’s biggest PR machine for our companies as well as our personal lives. But, social media often doesn’t tell the story behind the photo.

My family is amazing, but severely broken. Not only do I continue to recover from a brain injury, but my husband was diagnosed recently with esophageal cancer. This is the kind of diagnosis that takes your breath away, that leads me to cry openly walking down the street because the pain and fear inside are so intense that it is wild and uncontrollable.

By the time his cancer was detected, it has left him with a 6 centimetre tumour and cancer that has spread to his stomach and surrounding lymph nodes. If you were to go on the web site and search for his prognosis, you would understand why we are so terrified.

Every time we look at the girls, our hearts break for them. They are 6 and 8 years old. They know their Dad has cancer, but we have kept the outlook very positive for them. We don’t want to burden them with worries about the struggle their hero is facing as his treatment begins, to fight like he never has fought before, to save his life. To live to see them graduate elementary school, high school, university, to walk them down the aisle at their weddings and to meet our grandchildren. There is still so much ahead of us.

These girls have already given up so much. My youngest was an infant and my eldest was 3 years old when my head came crashing down on a concrete floor after I fainted, in some strange twist of fate, during a standing up x-ray in 2012. I had to limit my time severely around stimulation, which meant they were sent away to live with my parents for a while and then when they returned, my husband assumed the role of primary care giver while I spent most of my time upstairs in the bedroom, resting. I listened to my daughters scream for me while Jeff wrestled with them downstairs to do his best to put pony tails in their hair before taking them to gymnastics

And now, the man they love so dearly is going through hell. He is facing an intense battle through a combination of chemo and radiation at the same time. And then will endure a surgery we have been told is more intense than heart surgery. His esophagus will be cut to a smaller size as well as his stomach and an internal feeding tube will be attempted to be re-constructed for him while clearing out about 30 lymph nodes. There will be months of recovery from this.

So, how do we cope? First of all, there will be a lot of days, we probably won’t. We will be hanging by a thread, emotionally, physically and spiritually. I have no idea what we are in for. My Dad died of lung cancer two years ago. We saw how he bravely worked his way through his diagnosis, right up until his death on that freezing cold, crisp February evening. He was only 66 years old.

But, each cancer journey is different.  And, Jeff is only 44 years old with two young kids. Support will be key for us. Our neighbours have stepped up in a big way as well as our amazing family and friends.

I believe I will have to practice what I preach in my professional life as a Coach, now more than ever. I will have to dig deeper into my mindfulness practice that has been ingrained in me through my brain injury journey. We have to stay here, in this moment, to be focused to make the best decisions as well as to not let future fears take hold.

So, what does this mean for my business and my coaching?  I am continuing to work throughout this journey. I am taking on new clients. I realize my mind needs to keep focused on regular life from time to time. I think work is good for me, and also from a financial standpoint, I need to keep working to support our family.

I feel like I am approaching my coaching work with a slightly different attitude. I am pushing my clients harder. I feel like this journey I am going through personally is shining a light about the preciousness of life and making every moment count. We really don’t have time to be complacent.

I challenge you the next time you are on Facebook or Twitter and see a photo posted of someone having the time of their lives on the beach or getting that great promotion, remember there is always a story behind the picture. Every person faces struggle. At some time or another, we all doubt ourselves, hit rock bottom and feel lost. We are all people, going through this life on a journey. There will be ups and there will be downs, and that is the way life seems to be designed to be. That is the beauty of life and the mystery of it, all at the same time. Be grateful for who you are, the work you do, the family and friends that you have and be kind to yourself, not falling for the trap of comparing yourselves to others around you. Because at the end of the day, we are all people, just trying to survive.

To be a part of our journey, follow me on Twitter @potentialultd

How To Be the Kind of Mentor Your Mentee Deserves

September 4, 2017

FORBES article by Carey-Ann Oestreicher

Mentoring is a great way to develop talent within an organization, but research shows it can also have a positive impact on the mentor’s own job satisfaction. I have done a lot of work around leadership development, and to me, few areas are as satisfying as being able to mentor someone to successfully progress in her/his career and life.

A lot of companies have formal mentorship programs, and even for those that don’t, employees can seek out mentors behind the scenes. We all know that mentorship is important, but still, a lot of people don’t seem to be as effective as they could be in this area. So, what does it really take to be an outstanding mentor?

An outstanding mentor knows:

1. To set the rules of engagement at the start of the mentoring relationship: Determine how often you can realistically meet and then commit to keeping those appointments within those timelines. You need to make mentoring this individual(s) a priority if you sign up to be a mentor. Also, talk about the goals of this mentoring relationship. I suggest focusing on only one to three goals to keep the relationship focused.

2. When to give advice and when to sit back and listen: Often people think their role as a mentor is to impart their great wisdom onto someone else. But wait… this is really only half of what is most effective. A great mentor is able to ask the right questions and listen to their mentee to really be able to understand them. Then, you can share how you have dealt with a similar situation in the past. Remember, however, that what worked for you may not work for someone else. Hear them out first and then you can brainstorm ways to address the issue together.

 

To read more, go direct to the Forbes site.

5 Years Ago Today, I Suffered A Brain Injury

July 18, 2017
5 years ago today I suffered a brain injury after a freak accident at a medical clinic – of all places! This day is hanging heavy on me today. I think of all the time I spent in the dark room – weeks – after the injury. In pain, not able to talk to anyone or read or listen to anything…just lie there in the dark and try not to stress or do anything to stimulate my brain. I think about everything I have lost – all this time with my girls, years spent eating dinner in my darkened bedroom. I think of everything that was just dumped onto my husband starting that day. The stress of this situation and everything it has cost him, me and our family.
Then I shift to the pain. The physical pain and all of the symptoms and the emotional sadness. The feeling of being stupid because I couldn’t use my brain to make simple decisions about even what I wanted to eat. So much heartache.
But, then I think of the gifts. That I was forced to slow down my busy Type A life. I learned how to be present. I have learned more about patience and myself than I would have ever learned without the brain injury. I have learned so many amazing tools around mindfulness and pacing, gratitude and compassion (to name just a small few) that I now use in my own life and ironically I now use with my coaching clients all the time.
Today, I reflect on everything I have lost and everything I have gained. And, I feel proud of myself and my family that we have made it to where we are – to where so many doctors told me I would never get to. I continue to recover. I still experience symptoms, but I am living proof of neuroplasticity. So for those out there with brain injuries, my advice to you is to accept where you are today, but never give up hope for continued healing.