The ICA’s new series, You Will Never, is designed to offer encouragement and inspiration in the face of criticism or adversity in or out of the workplace. In the first article, Melody MacPherson, the President of independent agency LPi Group and an ICA board member, talks candidly about the time when she was diagnosed, 20 years ago, with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and told she only had four months to live. She also provides insight and advice for those facing issues with COVID and other scenarios.
My diagnosis was a moment of, “you will never live out your life the way that you’d thought.” There was the reality of, “if you don’t do something now, you will be dead in four months.”
In that moment, hearing the words “you have cancer,” one of my first thoughts was to release my partner from this battle and I encouraged him to go find a healthy woman he could marry, have children with and live “happily ever after.” We’d been dating for a couple of years, and he wouldn’t leave. I had no choice but to get better.
We became aware of my illness in early December. From there, I was off work for five weeks to go through all the testing, and assessments to determine my diagnosis and treatment protocol. I was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My disease was initially managed with oral chemotherapy, and I returned to work. But within 18 months, more toxic and invasive treatments were required. I got married and returned from our honeymoon to start intense chemotherapy in preparation for a stem cell transplant.
My husband, our families and my workplace were incredibly supportive. Having a support system… even if it is just someone to talk to, to be yourself with, is critical. At the time of diagnosis, I’d been working at Coca-Cola for two years, and they were incredible. In total, I worked there for 13 years, and I always felt completely supported in that environment. The importance of an empathetic leadership team and benefits in place to help me, as the employee, through this unexpected ordeal was truly appreciated. As a young person, I didn’t fully understand the concept of short-term and long-term disability. And it isn’t something you think you’ll ever need … until you need it. And I hope no one reading this ever does. But it is an insurance policy that delivers peace of mind.
Unfortunately, soon after the stem cell transplant, we got the call that it hadn’t worked, and that we would now move forward with a bone marrow transplant.
I believe in the power of positive thinking and visualization. Being told that the stem cell transplant hadn’t worked was discouraging. I had been eating extremely healthy foods, doing yoga and anything else I could to prevent the disease from thriving. Starting over again with even more toxic chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow aspirates and biopsies, nausea, social isolation … it was distressing, and truthfully made me wonder what would be different this time because I had worked so hard to get better.
I’ve been called stubborn, or persistent, and in this case, it was a benefit. When you are faced with a difficult situation you rise, you focus your efforts, and you prepare mentally and physically for battle. My alternative was quite literally death; so I chose the resources I needed, eliminated the negative influences in my life and focused 100 per cent on getting better.
I was very fortunate that my youngest brother was a “perfect” match and was my bone marrow donor. A transplant completely wipes out your system – white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. In essence, I would have my brother’s system. And, for the same reason he isn’t sick, I wouldn’t be either.
The treatment protocol and healing journey was extreme. I had severe graft versus host disease. In addition to an allergic reaction to the anti-rejection drug that induced seizures, every healthy cell was killed. I was unrecognizable and looked like an extra from a sci-fi film.
The overwhelming nature of my illness made it necessary to focus on one day at a time, and I journaled for the first time in my life. I kept track of how I felt each day to be aware of changes, and improvements, regardless of how minor. Very rarely in the past had I taken the time to focus on me, and it was now mandatory to do so. Looking back, you realize how far you’ve come. And even though there may still be many challenges ahead, it gives you the belief that you can do it.
In business, we build a plan and execute it. Without realizing it, that was my approach. My desired outcome was to heal and be cancer free. It was a process. There was a treatment protocol, a plan. One day at a time. Small actions every day that would have a cumulative impact and ideally lead to a positive outcome.
My family was amazing, but equally important was feeling supported by my employer. I could focus on my personal healing without having to worry about finances, whether I would have a job to return to, or stigmatization.
We took pictures of me when I was at my lowest, and when I did return to work, I kept those photos in my planner to remind me of what I went through. In our business, in marketing, there are many “Type A” personalities. I’m wired the way I am. And soon enough, even with the pictures to remind me of what I’d been through, I was right back to where I was before – happily taking on everything.
There was a point when I felt defined by cancer. My identity had been “Melody from Coke.” And then it became “Melody with Cancer.” Maybe that was in my head, but cancer did become a big part of who I was. I was very open about my illness and willing to speak to anyone who was struggling or going through a similar challenge. Advocating for myself during my illness gave me a sense of control; and being of assistance to others gave me a sense of purpose.
I sometimes have “survivor guilt” because there are so many people out there who didn’t win the lottery I did – who embraced the positivity, science, and nutrition, who did everything I did – but for some reason, their stories have different endings.
After spending three straight months in Princess Margaret Hospital – after having my “hard drive” erased with chemo, waiting for the bone marrow transplant to take, and my brother’s immune system to take over – I was finally released and allowed to go home. Three days after my release, I had to go back to PMH as my bi-weekly assessments began.
That day was Tuesday, September 11, 2001. That morning, I was in the clinic waiting room full of other people fighting to live, watching the horrors unfold on TV. When we all woke up that morning – the cancer patients and all those poor people in the planes and buildings that were attacked that day – no one would have traded places with me.
What happened to the thousands of innocent people and their families on 9/11 wasn’t fair. And even though I wasn’t supposed to still be here – because of a hard fight and commitment from myself, the doctors, nurses, and my family…miraculously I am.
After all these years, I’ve forgotten a lot of the tough times. I think it’s a human defence mechanism not to linger on painful thoughts. But there are a few moments and lessons that I’ll always remember.
One of them is to live for today. We’ve all been in hospitals – for ourselves or with our loved ones. Every day you get to drive by a hospital, and not turn into it, is a good day. Enjoy them, as we’ll all be back there again at some point.
Another is that nothing is pre-determined and there’s no such thing as “fair.” You try your best, gather your strength, and fight your hardest to give yourself the best possible chance to succeed. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t.
Be your own advocate. Bringing this up to the present day, COVID is an illness that has impacted all of us. We are all fighting this battle of social isolation, of social malnutrition. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because if you say, “I’m great, everything’s good,” then people don’t know that you need support or even just someone to chat with. Most companies provide support through employee assistance programs, but EAPs are the most underutilized employee benefit. Don’t be afraid to contact them, understand that they’re confidential and you don’t have to face things alone.
The importance of balance. I try to schedule time in my day to get outside, to eat healthy, or even to indulge because I deserve it. Admittedly this doesn’t always happen, but if you don’t intentionally try, then your chances of making it happen are virtually zero.
My ”You will never…” experience has given me perspective on what is important.
Yet even with everything I went through, it is easy to fall back into the routine of go, go, go, and not take the time to recharge and take care of my personal health. When things feel overwhelming, I try to look at one thing at a time, break it down, and make a plan.
You will never get married, you will never have children, you will never live out the year unless you begin chemotherapy … Melody has her happily ever after, recently celebrating 21 years of marriage, she has a 17-year old daughter and is leading a successful agency.
LPi Group is a member of the Institute of Communication Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.