Bouncing back

Leadership  Relationships
01 February, 2016

Step-by-step advice for dealing with adversity, from a ‘cancer victor’

We have all known loss and fear. It could have been losing someone we loved dearly, coping with a crisis or being diagnosed with a serious illness. We may have won some of these battles. We may have also lost some. But either way, there is no denying that battling your way through really tough times, shapes you irrevocably.

Looking back on it, some of you probably wouldn’t have it any other way. But that only happens in hindsight. It is very different when you are in the middle of it all. That is when it takes tremendous courage to not give up and make rock bottom a starting point.

So, how do you build resilience? Face tough times, absorb all that happens; bounce back and be the stronger and better for it? Whether it is in your personal life or your capacity as a leader at Godrej, try as you may, you won’t be able to prep for everything difficult that comes your way. Life is much too uncertain. But what you can do is get better at managing this adversity. Be okay with facing the challenges that will come your way. Not underestimate how strong you really are. And use these experiences to grow.

I am very pleased that Jatin Panchal has written this week’s message. Jatin, as you know, leads Alternate Channels for our GCPL India business.

Please read on…

Why am I writing this? The obvious reason of course is that I am a cancer victor (that’s what I choose to call myself). But more importantly, I feel very strongly that it is time that we are much more open about cancer. And able to talk freely about it.

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to be here. Healthy, on my feet, and given this chance to share my thoughts with all of you.

I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma on June 1, 2008. Osteosarcoma is a kind of bone cancer. I lost my left knee to it. As part of my cycle of medication, I had to undergo three surgeries and eight cycles of chemotherapy over a period of 11 months. It was a long process. Painful and taxing. But I personally consider that year a guiding force. The “world’s most rewarding post grad course attended in the institute called life” 🙂

So, I want to put together today, my thoughts on the various aspects of cancer and life post cancer, as I have experienced them. Please excuse me if they seem a little ‘preachy’. They are simply what I have felt through my journey so far.

As some of you may know, February 4 is World Cancer Day. Here is how the numbers stack up. Estimates suggest that in India, cancer affects around 2.6 million people. Every year, there are roughly 0.8 million new cases. And 0.55 million people lose their lives to this disease. But the real impact is much more than these numbers alone. The numbers don’t count the immense emotional trauma, or the very real monetary burden of what the treatment costs. Not just for the person diagnosed with it, but also for their families, who bear much of the impact. It comes as no surprise then, that cancer is associated with a lot of fear and despair.

Unfortunate though it may be, I am more than sure that all of you reading this are not unfamiliar with cancer and what it can do. You probably have, at some point or another, had at least one near and dear one diagnosed with it.

As I have learned, this journey and battling cancer isn’t something that you can do alone. There are many other people involved. So, my message is not just for someone battling it. It is equally for someone who is a caregiver in any form. And this probably isn’t just true for cancer. It holds for any life-threatening disease that can cause the same impact.

WHAT YOU CAN DO AS AN INDIVIDUAL

Getting the diagnosis phase right

1. Don’t ignore the signals

Nothing is more important than this. Our bodies give us very early signals when things are not right. It could be prolonged or recurring pain, fever, lumps, numbness, etc. Please do not ignore them. You must get them diagnosed to the root.

Your family doctor plays a very critical role here, just as mine did; something that I will always be thankful to him for. He was the one who didn’t let me ignore the little pain in my knee. The pain that would not go away even after two rounds of painkillers. He insisted that I get a scan done. I did. And what happened post that is now history!

2. Manage the ‘Breaking News’

The initial diagnosis of cancer is a grave event for many patients. More than one-third of them suffer from anxiety and depression.

My reaction post the diagnosis was somewhat like this…

“This report is incorrect”
“Maybe the test samples got exchanged”
“I don’t smoke. I live a healthy life, so it cannot be cancer for me.”

And many such unanswered questions and doubts.

We got the tests done twice at two different labs. Sadly, the ‘breaking news’ didn’t change. You can only imagine how scary this can be.

It takes time for the fact and reality to sink in and be absorbed. Not only by you, but also by your family. Easier said than done, but the quicker you accept the fact, and accept it bravely, the faster the focus would shift to figuring out the right treatment.

As I realised, you need to do the move from ‘Why me?’ to ‘What next?’ with your family.

3. Do not waste time 

Cancer moves at jet speed; cells multiply exponentially and in a very short time; you will find this disease moving from Stage 1 to the next few stages. This is why you need to act very fast.

According to a Boston Consulting Group study, 60 percent of cancer cases in India are diagnosed late. People take too long to go to the doctor. They spend months identifying the right doctor, hospital and mode of treatment, without realising the harm being caused inside their bodies. We need to become much more aware of this.

I was fortunate to be diagnosed at Stage 1. Within just seven days from the date of diagnosis, I was on my first chemotherapy cycle.

4. Be open about it

It is sad, but true. Cancer is still considered a taboo in India. Fears like social boycott and how employable and marriageable you are, could make you keep your diagnosis under wraps from your family, friends and your organisation.

My personal experience says that this really does more harm than good. If anything, you need to clearly communicate the nature of the diagnosis, its treatment, time frame, cost, etc. to everyone. This battle can’t be fought alone. Be open about the support that you would need from each one of them, especially from your organisation.

I was very candid about this with the organisation I was working with back then. Especially about the duration of my absenteeism. This helped them plan my replacement in time. The financial aid I received also helped me take care of the initial part of my medication.

Managing yourself during treatment

I know that this could tend to become very personal and very subjective. There is no one way of approaching this. Everyone has their own story. So, here is my take:

1. Attitude is everything

Research says that in situations like cancer, the drugs do only 70 per cent of the work. The remaining 30 per cent depends upon the attitude, spirit and the belief of the person. So, if you have heard this before and thought it wasn’t really true, think again.

I found, that rather than sitting around and thinking ‘Why me?’ and fighting with destiny and myself, I needed to shift focus. Start fighting the cancer inside me. It worked wonders. No, it isn’t easy. But having a positive attitude and putting up a strong face in adversities like this, will you help recover faster. And make you stronger. Also, breaking down once in a while helps release stress. Who says men can’t cry? 🙂

2. Use your time well

There is a lot of free time that you end up with during medication. Use this well. For example, you may find that our taxing corporate lives leave little or no time to pursue a hobby, or for our near and dear ones. This ‘holiday’ could just be the right time to work on some of this!

During that one year, I rediscovered my lost passion for reading. I also made up for all the lost time I had stayed away from my wife and parents.

3. Don’t become a doctor yourself

This is a classic response, which many of us have. And it arises primarily due to all the extra care and concern that you will have at this time. Given how much we know and want to know, we turn to ‘Dr. Google’ to decide on our course of medication. That’s Dr. Google over an oncologist. Please don’t do this. Let the real doctors do their jobs.

Sometimes, patients and family members, in their concern, end up switching between doctors and medication, from allopathy to naturopathy. Trust me, this can cause severe complications. It can even jeopardise the life of the patient.

In my case, after initial research, we zeroed in on a hospital, doctor and treatment. And stood by the same throughout the course of my treatment. This helped tremendously. The rapport and connect that we developed with my team of doctors still remains and comes in handy, post the recovery period.

Managing yourself post treatment

This is the most critical part. Somewhat like when a spacecraft is entering back into the Earth’s atmosphere, after its journey through space. If not handled well, your life, like the spacecraft, can be jeopardised.

1. Get back to a routine as soon as possible

The earlier you get back to a routine, the less time you will take to settle down. Most often, people are worried about the side effects of their chemotherapy showing. Like patchy skin, bald heads and pale frames. These are genuine concerns, but should not keep you from starting work.

You should fully utilise flexible organisation policies like work from home and short assignments to help get back to regular corporate life.

I took a 15-day vacation post my last chemotherapy round and was back in office post that. This may have appeared too much at that time, but my family and organisation supported my decision fully.

2. The world will look at you the way you look at yourself

When you join work again, your organisation is probably as anxious as you are, about your job, role, employability and performance. In most cases, you join after a prolonged absence, which runs into months. Your organisation doesn’t know your state of both physical and psychological health. They will hence, absorb what you show them.

This is the critical point at which you need to take the lead. Break the barrier and communicate clearly on your status. Help reinstate organisation confidence. And allow them to decide the future course of action. This could be regarding your role, responsibility and location.

My personal belief is that if you treat yourself as handicapped, the world too will very happily treat you the same way. And this will eventually make you handicapped. I will always remain indebted to my organisation back then. They retained the same faith in me and allowed me to pursue the same role and responsibility, which I had before my diagnosis. I was the Regional Sales Development Manager for West India (my hometown) before my diagnosis. When I came back, I was made Regional Sales Development Manager for East India.

I don’t think I would have been where I am today, had I chosen to remain in the comfort zone of my hometown in Mumbai post joining work 🙂

3. Maintain discipline

Once they settle in, most people get back to their regular flow of life. While that is good, they also tend to forget about their lifestyle guidelines, routine checks and prescribed doctor visits. Don’t worry; this is a very human tendency. This is why we have caring wives and mothers and cautious husbands. Listen to them and follow their instructions. There are some old habits that could have led to this cancer. It’s best not to get back to them.

WHAT YOU CAN DO AS A MANAGER

As the immediate manager of a cancer patient, or any patient really, you play a very critical role. This is right through their journey, from diagnosis to returning post treatment.

For people, how their manager reacts determines the way they believe their organisation is reacting to and viewing them.

The manager’s responses, maturity, attitude and ability to manage the situation either builds up or releases the person’s anxieties about the way forward.

Here are some of my suggestions for you:

During the diagnosis phase:

  • Show empathy towards the situation and the person.
  • Be available always and provide a comfortable and secure environment for the person to talk freely.
  • Assess the situation basis the nature of diagnosis, expected absenteeism, expected cost, course of medication, etc. and communicate this to your Head of Department and other relevant functions.
  • With the help of HR, guide the person through company policies on leave, financial aid, insurance, medical claims process, etc.
  • The person may need immediate assistance on travel, advances, etc. Help arrange them as soon as you can.
  • Sometimes, the family members of the person too may want to talk to you or meet you to express their anxieties. Be open about hearing them out.
  • There could be emotional breakdowns. Learn how to handle this.
  • Sometimes, it may not be possible to communicate with the person, due to the medical condition. Identify a close person, maybe from the family, whom you can be in touch with.
  • Manage the person’s role during the interim period. This could be challenging if the person is expected to be away for a long time. I was away for 11 months 🙂
  • Most importantly, build confidence that the organisation will be of support throughout these hard times.

During treatment:

  • Give a sense that the organisation has not forgotten them.
  • Stay in touch, meet once a while, keep them updated on the team’s achievements etc.
  • Get a status check on the progress of medication and health and keep the organisation posted on it.
  • If the person’s role has already been filled, then the Head of Department and HR should also be involved in this messaging.

Upon return:

  • Offer the time and space to settle down.
  • The person may need flexibility to settle down, like work from home. Close this with the Head of Department and HR.
  • Help the person build confidence and manage anxieties better
  • The treatment could have had an impact on the person’s skills. You need to show empathy and build expectations accordingly. (I had forgotten how to make Excel pivot tables and some basic Excel formulae 🙂 )
  • A lot would have passed since the person was at work last. Try help bridge this gap.
  • Most importantly, make the person genuinely feel that you want him back on board.

A FEW REALISATIONS FROM MY 7 YEARS AS A CANCER VICTOR

1. Don’t take your family for granted

During your journey through an illness, the only ones who genuinely and selflessly stand by you, are your family. They deserve more than what we give them in our busy lives.

Now, I make sure that we do a family vacation every year. And I am there at my daughter’s school for her PTA and sports days. I have realised that my organisation and my manager do not have a problem with these breaks. It had much more to do with me.

2. Don’t abuse your health

I didn’t smoke, worked out regularly and had a fairly disciplined lifestyle. Yet, I was diagnosed with cancer. My prayers go out to those who have a high probability of cancer because of their lifestyles.

Today, I am more conscious of my weight, my waist line, my Body Mass Index (BMI) and my step count for the day. I also try to push my team to be more conscious.

3. Take financial planning seriously

The cost of cancer treatment can run into lakhs of rupees. And it could result in you being in financial debts for a long time. Most serious illnesses can, now. So, do you have your mediclaim and life insurance policy in place? If not, please get one for the right amount today. Do this now. Don’t postpone it.

I figured this out the hard way. I didn’t have an insurance policy before my diagnosis. Maybe I didn’t feel the need for it. Today I want one desperately, but no insurance company wants to offer me one because of my medical history.

4. Live every moment of your life

It is only after being so close to death that you realise that there is so much to do. And you have so little time to do all of it. My advice, is get as many ticks on your bucket list as soon as possible. And if you don’t have a bucket list, please create one.

Today, I have this sense of urgency to do so many things in my life. And live every moment. Thanks to Godrej LOUD I have skydived from 15,000 feet. I also participated in the Mumbai Marathon, have made road trips in my car, now teach students, am part of an NGO, and the list goes on.

It is like ‘zindagi na milegi dobara’ (You won’t get this life back).

5. Life does not have to stop after cancer

My life hasn’t! 🙂

Lastly, I would like to leave you with a quote:

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” – Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa

A big thank you to Jatin for sharing this deeply personal and very inspiring message.

Many of you could probably add to this with your own experiences. I hope that you find the time this week to reflect on them. Celebrate your fortitude and resilience. Look for ways to build on it. And to pass it on.

Comments

  • Deepali says:

    Jatin, great to hear that you are doing good and that you are a fighter. I keep getting updates from Pallavi on and off about your health. Although we have never met but I have met your whole family including your cute daughter. You are blessed!!! And God will always continue to bless you and your family… Regards to your parents, Deepali (Pallavi Pagnis’ friend)

  • Pallavi says:

    Sensitive yet pragmatic post. Very well written & an inspiration to so many of us.
    Thanks for sharing!

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