Cancer and the company | My husband's diagnosis

This article was originally published on 8GramGorilla in February 2019

We’ve been working with a business coach for a while now and 2019 was set to be Primate’s year of exceptional growth. We’d laid the foundations, workshopped, changed mindset, reinvigorated our team, lined up a new office and adapted our brand. But on the 21st December, Winter Solstice, the longest day, my husband was diagnosed with an aggressive metastatic head and neck cancer.

The excitement of planning our fantastic turnkey year in business fell away as my focus rerouted onto Keith (husband) and keeping him alive and well. He needed all of my energy as we battled through Christmas and New Year with joy and misery, fear, his physical pain and a barrage of pinpointing diagnostic tests.

In the month of January Keith and I learnt incredible wealths about cancer, hospital car parking, our fantastic friends, medical procedures, the strength of our family, drugs and their impact. In the month of January Gordon, Bart and I learnt what impact losing one of the three of us would elicit on the business.

A new normal

We were on two weeks holiday over Christmas but the NHS was not. By the new year Keith had undergone a CT scan, various blood tests, a chest X-Ray and two types of MRI. He was on good pain medication and been assigned three fantastic Specialist Care Nurses all of whom answered various calls over that holiday period.

In January Keith had surgery and various biopsies, the team identified the primary source of his cancer. We met his Oncologist, Speech and Language Therapist, had a long dental appointment in preparation for treatment, IVF planning, and met with Macmillan Cancer Support on the instruction of our lead Nurse to help navigate some of the challenges. Hospital life became our new normal.

On 1 February Keith started treatment in earnest, the NHS did not hang around with his care.

Not everything is manageable

During our first ‘MDT’ (multidisciplinary team meeting) I explained to the treatment team that I had a background in Project Management. I asked for a road map with key challenges and treatment dates, so that I could manage and plan Keith’s care. Linda, Keith’s lead nurse, politely but unapologetically told me I could not project manage cancer. I took real offence.

“Linda politely but unapologetically told me that I could not project manage cancer.”

Linda was right, unsurprisingly. Despite my best efforts, the detailed note taking, programming Alexa to provide drug prompts, rallying cleaners, friends, dog-sitters. It’s impossible to manage a process that’s reliant on cells, medicines, a body’s ability to survive a thorough poisoning and the myriad of side effects that accompany such exceptional but such gruelling treatments.

The Cancer back up plan

Cancer has revealed that our successful agency and 8 year old business has significant vulnerabilities and a lack of emergency planning. I don’t believe we’re alone in this.

When you’re wrapped in business, servicing a great client portfolio with the flair and fun of creative output it’s easy! You prepare for things that seem likely; challenges in the market, the possibility of parenthood, changes in staff. Why would anyone running a business in their 30s have a ‘life-threatening-illness’ back up plan. I believe many agencies we know and a good number of our SME clients — perhaps even the larger ones — would be in the same position.

As individuals we might have critical care life insurance, a nest egg, the ability to adapt to life as a single salary household. But, despite being a business without debt and a healthy bank balance, a drop in sales and output can take hold and dent a company quickly.

Keith under a favourite blanket from home, on hour 28 of 290 chemotherapy hours

The adaptation

I don’t try to demonstrate my worth and importance when I say my time out of the business has had a significant impact. As Commercial Director and the driver of sales our pipeline has reduced and our ability to respond to enquiries has lengthened.

The need to nimbly adapt and take charge was key and this vision was not something I could bring to the situation. It required the guys, without whom I would not be the support Keith needs me to be. Business partners, friends, thoroughly decent human beings; I’m so lucky to have Gordon and Bart on my team.

Gordon and Bart have both shifted roles to accommodate but the reality is that my workload has inevitably spread across the business. Our team of 12 has shouldered every aspect of my role, perhaps imperfectly but in exactly the way we required and with immediacy. It wasn’t managed it was handled but we have been able to adapt.

Changed but better

It feels like months but in reality we’ve only been living with cancer for 10 weeks. We’ve shifted roles in the business, are hiring in more support and have reviewed our process to accommodate. The day to day stress of business is now mainly shouldered by Gordon and Bart (for which I’ll be eternally grateful) and I drop in for weeks at a time in-between treatment to throw myself into whichever role they need me to play.

No part of our company remains unchanged. Client management, communication, staff morale, project timelines, meeting dates, office cleanliness and the readiness of hand sanitiser have all been impacted by cancer. As the owner of the office dog we’ve even lost the calming influence of padded feet!

We’ve been honest with all of our clients who have live project work in the studio. We still have plans to achieve our kick-ass turnkey year but it will be weighted towards the latter two quarters. We won’t stop producing spectacular work.

On reflection I am exceptionally proud of our agency, culture and ethics. Despite the enormous impact cancer has had on our business we’ve put the individual first and coped. We starkly contrast my husband’s multi-million pound retail employer who have been so poor in their support that we’ve had to draw on a third party to encourage them to be less shitty.

Keith’s cancer is wonderfully, thankfully, curable, he just cashed in that ‘in sickness and health’ vow bloody early! Primate’s ability to adapt to help me cope too, means we’ll all be stronger for it.

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