Cancer Made Me a Better Leader


When I was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, I’m pretty sure my doctor didn’t say, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been given the gift of cancer!’ Of course not. Cancer sucks. Fuck cancer. And yet, in retrospect, I can’t help but view my battle with cancer as a positive influence on my leadership development. This isn’t to say that I’m grateful for cancer or that cancer turned me into a leadership guru (far from it). It’s simply to say that experiences that are especially painful in the short term can have a positive impact on leadership skills in the long term.


Cancer hurts, physically and emotionally. Chemo and radiation literally kills you from the inside. Surgeries tear you open and remove the good with the bad. And the gnawing anxiety about relapse lingers even after supposedly ‘winning your battle’ with cancer. On the positive side, that suffering has made me more finely attuned to the suffering of others. My experiences with cancer helped me to recognize that everyone suffers. This empathy has been critical to my leadership development because it has enabled me to improve my ability to genuinely connect with colleagues and clients.


Cancer is a fire that burns away the bullshit: pondering your own mortality is a great way to distinguish between what is important in life and what is not. Ultimately, my experience with cancer taught me how to prioritize among a number of strategic options and focus on following through on my decisions. As a leader, I’ve found this strategic clarity to be invaluable in unify others efforts behind a singular vision for the future.


I’ve found that cancer has given me a unique perspective on work. In the 10 years since my diagnosis, I’ve had a lot of bad days at work. But no matter how bad work is going, it’s still a lot better than chemo. That may sound glib, but anyone who has been in an infusion chair knows what I mean. As a business leader, this ‘big picture’ perspective has been invaluable because it puts both success and failures into their appropriate context. At the end of the day, work is just work and there plenty of other things that are more important. This moderating perspective has helped me avoid becoming overly confident when I succeed or overly depressed when I make mistakes.

Looking Ahead

For the past 10 years, my mantra has been Fuck Cancer. These two words embodied the defiance and anger that I felt towards a disease that turned my life upside down. I’m not ready to change my mantra to Thank Cancer. But I am at least willing to acknowledge that cancer has had a positive influence on my approach to leadership.

Dan Callahan is the Founder and President of Vivisum Partners. He specializes in creating multi-phase research programs that combine quantitative, qualitative and strategic facilitation methodologies. Email Dan at dan.callahan@vivisumpartners.com