Did Cancer Make Me a Better Leader?

Did cancer really make me a better leader?y.

Last summer, cancer decided to rear its ugly head and reintroduce itself in my life. ‘Hello. It’s cancer. Remember me?’ The last year has been all too familiar: surgeries, radiation, innumerable tests and the relentless whispering anxiety that accompanies treatment. As I gradually recover from my most recent surgery, I couldn’t help but recall a blog post I’d written a few years ago titled ‘Cancer made me a better leader.’

When I originally wrote that blog, I was doing well in my professional career and I had the perspective of being 10 years removed from cancer treatment. Now that I’m back in the throes of treatment again, I’m wondering: Would that original blog still hold up? Or would the original reveal that I’d simply forgotten what cancer is actually like? Did cancer really make me a better leader? I thought it would be interesting to revisit that original blog and reflect on where I am today.

So, in the wistful words of Mr. J Alfred Prufrock:

Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’. Let us go and make our visit. 

Original blog: 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.

Today’s reflection: Cancer sucks, and that part definitely holds up. Still, I can’t help cringing at the notion of connecting my personal health struggles with advice about professional leadership. It is objectively true that cancer has shaped my leadership style. However, in our icky age of personal branding and self-appointed management experts, it feels almost morally wrong view a deeply personal health issue through the lens of career advice. The whole premise of this initial blog feels a bit misguided.


Original blog: Cancer hurts, physically and emotionally. Chemo and radiation literally kill 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.

Today’s reflection: This holds up pretty well, especially as I continue to battle the pain and fatigue resulting from my most recent surgery. Indeed, one’s own suffering does make a person more finely attuned to the suffering of others.


Original blog: 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 unifying others’ efforts behind a singular vision for the future.

Today’s reflection: This is horrendous. The argument that pondering my own death made me a better strategic thinker is absurd and self-delusional. Full stop.


Original blog: 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 are 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.

Today’s reflection: This feels even more true as I read it today. In fact, let me expand: The worst day at work is better than a night in the ICU. The worst day at work is better than waiting anxiously for biopsy results. The worst day at work is better than having to lay deathly still in the claustrophobic coffin of a CT scanner. Throughout this whole ordeal, work has been my refuge from cancer, and I will always prefer work over cancer.

Looking Ahead

Original blog: 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.

Today’s reflection: Fuck Cancer.

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