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Mat Wilcox, CEO of the Wilcox Group (Laura Leyshon/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and Mail)
Mat Wilcox, CEO of the Wilcox Group (Laura Leyshon/LAURA LEYSHON for the Globe and Mail)

Top 100 Women

Life-shattering cancer sent PR 'rock star' to hell and back Add to ...

For 15 years, Mat Wilcox reigned as Canada's queen of corporate crisis management. She sat at the centre of all kinds of tempests - labour disruptions, product tampering and recall cases, the avian flu controversy, and dozens of other high-profile issues. In the prime of life, she was chief executive officer of her own Vancouver-based public relations firm, the Wilcox Group, with a staff of 40 and annual revenues in the millions of dollars. Although she typically worked 80 hours a week, often commuting between offices in Vancouver and Toronto, she was, she says, the picture of good health. And she felt invincible, "fabulous, like a rock star."

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Then, in an instant, the entire structure toppled over, her confidence shattered. One morning in March of 2008, while putting on her late mother's diamond earrings, she felt a strange lump beside her left ear. She went to an outpatient clinic and was immediately prescribed antibiotics. When that regimen failed to clear it up, her doctor arranged a biopsy. The conclusion was swift and devastating: parotid gland cancer.

That grim news was followed by worse: An ultrasound scan uncovered two large, unrelated tumours in her thyroid. In no time at all, Ms. Wilcox's doctors had fast-tracked surgery for her salivary gland cancer and recommended the maximally aggressive radiation treatment for the thyroid.

All of a sudden, Ms. Wilcox was confronting the biggest crisis management issue of all - her own life.

There was precious little time for self-indulgent complaint. Major business questions had to be addressed, urgently. Among them: what to do with the firm, its staff, its roster of blue-ribbon clients and various other corporate obligations, including her seats on the boards of other companies, and extensive pro-bono community work.

All of this while Ms. Wilcox tried to steel herself mentally for the looming medical hurdles. Her doctors had minced no words: this was a life-threatening situation. The surgery on the parotid tumour, which left her without nerve endings on the left side of her face, went well, although she would have to be closely monitored for signs of recurrence, which typically develops in the first seven months.

Soon after, she began three weeks of complete isolation at home, while she drank a daily radioactive iodine ablation. And that was just the start. Five consecutive weeks of ionizing radiation followed - a daily 27-minute blast aimed directly at the thyroid, while Ms. Wilcox lay immobilized, her face protected from harmful rays by a claustrophobic mask. She was literally bolted to the table.

"The mask is so tight that you not only can't move, you can't talk," she says. "You can't open your eyes. You can barely breathe." She requested they play rap music as a distraction.

It was, she says now, by far the most horrific experience of her life. "The second day, they had to literally push me into the room." Radiation itself was even more enervating. "You're exhausted. You get progressively sicker. You can't eat. You're nauseous. You can't swallow. Your hair falls out. You have bleeding and third-degree burns inside and outside your body."

The doctors had warned her that she wouldn't be able even to think about business for a year. And that was assuming a best-case scenario with the treatment. Her first instinct was simply to wind up the company. Although she had great faith in her president, Erin McConnell, it seemed inconceivable that the Wilcox Group could carry on without Ms. Wilcox herself - the firm's principal engine. She had personally landed most of its major contracts and she nursed doubts about whether the client base would remain loyal if she weren't available. That's what crisis management, after all, was all about.

So she and Ms. McConnell went for a long, gut-wrenching lunch. "Mat more or less left the decision about whether to close the firm up to me," Ms. McConnell recalls. "But I was confident she would come through it and I thought the firm should still be there for her to come back to. So I said, 'Why don't we just try it. Let me run it and see how I do.' " Ms. Wilcox agreed. Clients were duly notified and not a single one cancelled its contract - an impressive vote of confidence.

Among those who stayed was John Bitove, chairman of Priszm, Canada's largest fast food operator. In addition to consulting for the likes of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, Ms. Wilcox sits on the board of Mr. Bitove's XM Satellite Radio.

"Mat was a key part of the success of our winning the licence," he recalls. "When [rival]CHUM appealed the CRTC's approval, she used her team, her energy and her brains to get the federal cabinet to support the original decision. And when she became ill, Mat was upfront with us.

"She said, 'This is what's happening. Give us a chance to work through this.' "

Ms. Wilcox did, however, decide to close the firm's Toronto office. Eight employees were laid off - she was in tears as she broke the news - at a cost of $300,000. But it had to be done. For Ms. Wilcox, a single mother with a teenage daughter, the medical emergency didn't simply mean a distancing from day-to-day affairs or staying in occasional contact. It was a complete disconnect - no e-mails, memos, reports, financial statements.

Resting at home in bed, she was too sick to care. "The doctors had said we're going to kill you to make you better, blast you to smithereens, and they meant it."

It helped that she stayed in Vancouver. Early on, she had explored other treatment options at big-name American cancer facilities - the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix and Sloan-Kettering in New York. "I actually went to see the Mayo and it dawned on me - I'd be by myself here."

The level of medical care in Vancouver, she is convinced, was "incredible," as good as she would have received anywhere. But ultimately, it was her friends, Ms. Wilcox maintains, "who got me through it." When she was in isolation, they deposited Starbucks coffees and nourishing meals at the end of her driveway. Later, they drove her to and from radiation appointments.

Virtually every day, she spoke to a throat cancer survivor, former Citibank Global Markets Canada president Rob Gemmell, who had undergone similar treatment. He became her coach. "Nobody else knew the terror. And Rob would tell me the truth. 'This is going to hurt like nothing you can imagine,' he'd say. 'So try this food or do this or do that.' ''

More than a year later, Ms. Wilcox is finally back at work, part-time. There has been no recurrence of the parotid tumour, but she is not fully free of cancer in the thyroid. She is monitored closely, with fresh blood samples taken every three months. Still, she knows - her doctors have told her - that she is a very lucky woman.

She was smart, too - long ago buying critical life insurance, which at least meant she did not have to worry about meeting mortgage payments or paying for her daughter's education. It bought her a year of no financial pressure.

Although "life does not put things in front of you that you are unable to handle," Ms. Wilcox says her experience taught her that "you have absolutely no control. That was terrible for me, because I'm a solutions-based person. For me, there's always a solution and here there wasn't. First, you have to wrap your head around the fact that you have cancer, even though you feel so good. And then you have to cope with these archaic treatments they've been using since the 1940s. You want answers and there are none. It's all so scary."

Her brush with mortality, she says, has not precipitated radical changes in her life - no meditation sessions in Indian ashrams, no attempts to scale Mt. Everest. But it has changed her in other, important ways.

"There were so many things that I used to think were important," she says. "Now I know they aren't. I have learned to say no. Time is valuable. I appreciate Dr. Seuss. Carpe diem. I'm selfish with my time and who I hang out with. And I will never underestimate family and friends - their power is invincible."

 

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