As we age, we feel it in aches and pains throughout our bodies. Sometimes they are a result of being physically active –injuries that involve knees, hips, shoulders, etc. Other times, it has nothing to do with activity. More likely, your body starts to turn on itself – autoimmune diseases, cancer, or, the number one killer of women, heart disease.
Nearly ten years ago, in the 19th year of running my successful ad agency, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Years prior to my diagnosis, I found myself constantly stumbling and tripping over my own feet. Now, I have a reputation for being clumsy, so everyone – including myself – chalked it up to my klutziness. Until I mentioned it to one of my physicians, who told me I might have had a stroke or it could be as simple as a sciatica problem. Testing was done to determine that I did not have a stroke, so the next step was to treat a possible sciatica issue and off to physical therapy I went.
When that didn’t work, the doctor suggested that I may have a pinched nerve and sent me to a neurologist who would give me a nerve conduction test. When I went for my appointment, the doctor sat me on the table and pulled his reflex hammer out. He did the usual knee reflex test and then used the hammer on my elbows. When my elbows reacted, he said, “Ok, I think I know what it is. It’s likely MS, or it might be a tumor on the brain and if it is that, we’ll just go in and pluck it right out.” I stared at him, dumbstruck.
He explained that when your body reacts to a reflex test above the waist, there is something going on in the brain. I was subsequently put through numerous tests, including the premier diagnostic tool for MS, a brain and spinal cord MRI. There were some other minor tests, but it was conclusive that I had MS.
So I get this news, and once the family is informed, I have to decide how to deal with employees, business partners, clients, and others in the business community. Do I tell them? How do I do it? I finally came clean after six weeks of dealing with this news. It was a relief to me, but it scared everyone else. It is important to deal with the likely questions that come – and continue to come – the most important: are you going to be able to continue running this business and leading us?
Once the decision is made to come clean, it is critical that you have a plan for the business should you be out of the office for periods of time, dealing with medical issues. I was fortunate in that I had a great business partner and a strong management team, so in the early days of medical testing, we did not skip a beat. I did not tell every client, vendor, or strategic partner. As a team, we felt it was not relevant to the relationships we had formed over the years. I had also grown the company to a size where my dealings with these folks were minimal anyway.
Once I started to receive treatment, I was back to business as usual. I count myself as one of the fortunate ones. While some of my physical activities had to be limited (going to client trade shows proved too difficult for my wonky leg), the rest of my business activities were not limited.
My advice to those facing similar circumstances: transparency is key as far as you need to take it. The way I handled it worked well for my company and for me. When I sold my firm five years after my diagnosis, I never told the buyer. Again, not relevant to my responsibilities post acquisition. I stayed one year into my three-year employment agreement – not unusual for the acquired CEO – and left with a sound relationship with the team that purchased the company.
My health is good, my MS is under control, and I am taking better care of myself. In the end, I am not sorry for getting difficult health news. It helped me in ways I am still discovering.
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