Beyond the Number
From Chemo to Demo: How My Stage 4 Cancer Diagnosis Helped Me Become a Better, Stronger Salesperson
In October 2010, I got the news that no healthy 24 year old wants to hear: I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma Nodular Sclerosis. To put it in simply: I had cancer. The doctor found a tennis ball sized mass in the corner of my chest that left no room for misinterpretation.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was just establishing myself as a young professional. The word “cancer” fortunately wasn't a large part of my vocabulary. Heck, I was earning my first salaried paycheck and the world was mine! When I first heard my diagnosis, my initial reaction was that I was being punished.
I thought over and over again, "Why me? Why do I deserve this?" I absolutely felt like a victim of something I couldn’t control.
Here on the other side of that 7 month journey, including 12 rounds of chemo and one very scary hospital stint for Bleomycin Toxicity that put me out of commission for two weeks, distance has given me some wisdom. I often say that my diagnosis day was both the best and the worst day of my life for what it has given me. I never thought I would take away anything valuable from this experience, but I did, both personally and professionally. In this article, I’ll focus on the latter, in hopes that it helps give my fellow salespeople a little encouragement and perspective.
What Cancer Taught Me About Excelling in My Sales Career:
- Give it to them straight. In the medical arena as in the sales world, it’s best to be a straight-shooter. It’s not always about giving the most comfortable, sales-y response. People have this idea that a great salesperson dances around sensitive subjects like pricing or competitive differentiation, glossing over the details up front only to drop the details later when things are further along. But the truth is, in sickness and in sales, no party gets value from the sugarcoating. When my doctor first told me I might have cancer, he gave it to me straight. He said, “There are 4 possibilities from the initial scans, and one of them is cancer.” Some might say he should have waited before introducing the C-word, but I appreciated his candor. When my Doctor told me straight up to prepare for the worst, I knew to start getting affairs in order. The same goes for sales. It’s better to skip the superficially attractive answer and instill trust through direct honesty. If the product cost is on the high-end or is going to require a time-consuming onboarding, be honest. I think buyers appreciate this because, as a result, they know how to execute on a decision and take action. No one likes to play in the grey area, or for an action plan to lack a clearly defined path to success. At my company FinancialForce, we heavily emphasize the importance of setting up a clearly defined path in a software decision-making process so that both parties have a mutual plan of success. I am grateful to my doctors to this day for giving me that gift.
2. Perseverance and attitude are everything. My diagnosis was just the beginning-after that, the bombshells just kept coming. It was recommended that I do at least 6 months of Chemotherapy - I didn't even know what chemo was before this, but I started the treatments. I didn't really have a choice, right? But there was one choice I could make-how I felt about it. Craig Sager said at the 2016 Espy's "The way you think influences the way you feel. And the way you feel, determines the way you act." I had to get control of my thoughts, feelings, and actions, and I wasn't going to let cancer take my life.
Needless to say, this exercise in grit in the face of crisis had a huge implication on my sales career, even to this day. Ever lose a late Stage deal because Legal couldn’t agree on terms? What about losing a deal because a company ended up getting acquired? Could you control any aspect of that? Probably not. You can only pout about it for long because there’s another sales cycle out there waiting for you to crush! Accepting fate and learning to be positive and persevere when circumstances outside of my control threatened to bring my down is one of the most powerful shifts I’ve ever made.
3. Your tribe determines your vibe. Although I pride myself on mental toughness (I've always said that I was so glad it was me and not someone else I know and loved that got diagnosed with cancer, because I'm always been the tough one), there is no way I could have kicked cancer’s a** without the support of others. Like Tony Robbins preaches, “Resourcefulness is the ultimate resource!” Leverage your existing relationships and draw from the narratives of other people’s experiences. This is the recipe for succeeding. Your solo perspective is probably not going to get you all the way where you need to be. No matter what we would like to believe about our own strength and ability, our worlds are always going to be that much smaller without other people in them. No win is ever won alone. This was one hundred percent true during my bout with cancer. The outpouring of love and support was unbelievable-from my teacher friends getting her thirty students to handwrite me “Get Well” cards in crayons, to the freezer meals friends baked, to the weekly purple gifts (the official color of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), the support of others was so moving and special. I previously wanted to do everything all on my own since a young age. There’s always a team behind you, whether it be in a doctor’s office or the boardroom.
4. Our greatest struggles can be our greatest victories. It has been the biggest blessing to experience cancer myself. I've become more empathetic, which has affected me personally but also as a salesperson. Being forced to really reevaluate what’s important in my own life has caused me to be much more sensitive and intentional about listening to what my prospects and customers prioritize and value.
Looking back on my brush with cancer, the biggest transformation was going from Victim to Owner. This experience created a callus of fearlessness unlike anything I could ever have imagined. I now have this unquenchable thirst for life, in both my personal and professional growth. Now, I try to harness that thirst and share that with the people I work with to empower them. I hope this article has done that for you. Please let me know in the comments about your own triumph over adversity stories-I’d love to hear them.
Every four minutes, someone is diagnosed. Every ten minutes, someone dies from cancer. We all know someone whose life has been touched by cancer. Please join me and my fellow teammates and support the Illinois Leukemia Cup Poker Run, July 21, 2018 - Details here!