Take a look at the person toiling away beside you, or even the one sitting in the corner office. You might not be able to tell, but chances are that they're facing their own personal struggle at home. We talked to five executives who've faced down cancer, lost a spouse or even a child about how they not only survived, but ended up becoming better leaders. Here are their stories, in their own words.
CEO, TD Ameritrade
Hockey was a rising star at TD Canada Trust when his daughter, Rosie, was born with a rare—and fatal—genetic disorder.
I wouldn't be in this job if it weren't for Rosie. When I was younger, I thought it was all about how smart you were, how hard you worked, how you moved up the ladder. I was just another guy trying to move the needle forward—as opposed to trying to be a better human.
Rosie was born on Dec. 30, 1998. I was 35 and a mid-level executive at TD Canada Trust. She was our third child—we had two boys, who were then four and six. That first night, they rushed Rosie to the neonatal intensive care unit. When we went in, the doctors and nurses all had these incredibly sad faces. I basically begged them to tell me what the issue was, and they said they couldn't confirm it, but Rosie had something like eight of the 11 signs of Down syndrome.
When you have a kid with Down syndrome, you go into this incredible mourning period. But at about day five, day six, you realize you're just mourning for yourself—for your dreams and your hopes. Most kids are quite happy. You then start to feel a little ashamed of your selfishness.
A few days later, the tests came back, and they told us Rosie didn't have Down syndrome after all. Six months went by. We were living in London, Ontario, where Canada Trust was based, and we knew something wasn't right, but we couldn't get anybody, anywhere, to diagnose her. Eventually, we went down to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore—there's one guy there who was researching neonatal adrenoleukodystrophy. It's very, very rare. Turns out my wife, Lana, and I both have the same recessive gene. We were down in the basement, and this researcher had photos of couples with their kids on his wall. He had no bedside manner and said, "I could draw a red 'X' through half of these pictures." We looked at him and said, "You're kidding—half the kids die?" He said, "No, all the kids die. I'm talking about divorces." That's how we found out it was fatal.
We lost Rosie a couple of days after her second birthday. She was blind and deaf, and we eventually lost her to pneumonia. But we got to be with her at the end. I'd been holding her on our bed with our boys, so she died at home with us. That was Jan. 2, 2001.
I often describe this period as the seven years of hell. It started in 1995. We were living in London, and I had two young kids, and I went to Ivey to do my executive MBA, which was based in Mississauga. The year after finishing the EMBA program, we had Rosie. Right after her diagnosis, I was given a job working out of Toronto, so I would do the London–Toronto train hop—a Monday-to-Friday thing—because there was no way we were moving the family. I gained weight. I think I was 55 pounds heavier than I am now. People kept coming up to me at work and asking, "How are you handling it?" And I'd say I was fine. I thought I was. But of course, your body reacts very differently to stress.
The April after we lost Rosie, we finally said it was time for the family to move to Toronto. My wife's favourite complaint was that we'd buy a place and renovate it, "yet the day after Labour Day, you'll go back to work and the kids will go back to school, and then I'll be alone in this big house, in this neighbourhood I don't know." But the day after Labour Day, I called home at 10:37 a.m. and asked how she was doing. She said, "I can't talk now—I have 11 women in my kitchen." She'd taken the kids to school, and all of the local moms had said, "Hey, fresh meat." Sitting at my desk in the TD tower downtown, I felt seven years of accumulated stress leave my body. Within six months, I lost about 60 pounds. Since then, I've said to people: "You cannot stress me out." I'm fairly unflappable now. You're not supposed to bury your kids. If you go through that, nothing fazes you.
At no point did it ever cross my mind that this couldn't be part of the dialogue as an employee—let alone as a leader. It probably has something to do with the culture of TD. It was a family. Ed Clark wasn't my boss at the time—he was something like my boss's boss's boss—but the news about Rosie ricocheted pretty quickly. I got a note on Ed's letterhead, and written on it were four words: "Whatever you need. —Ed."
That colours a lot of what I believe the workplace should be like. If you can't share this type of information, you need to leave that organization. You realize quickly that everybody has a story. It's 1950s-style leadership if you believe that must be left at home. Just ridiculous. People can't separate that. And if they do, they're suppressing part of themselves that makes them human.
In 10 years of meetings with analysts and stockholders at TD— including my time as head of personal and commercial banking—I would talk about the importance of what I used to call a "caring performance culture," and eyes would glaze over. But if you think business is just about the cool new product, you don't get it. That's not sustainable. Anybody can come up with that. Large organizations tend to drive the humanity out. When you're talking about workplaces of more than 1,000 employees, it's the soft stuff that makes people want to join you. It's absolutely everything. And large organizations tend to take their humanity from their leader. The culture bends in the shape the CEO wants, and then people start to mimic that behaviour.
Chair, Canada Infrastructure Bank
Fukakusa was CEO Gord Nixon's "rock" at Royal Bank of Canada, and when she was first diagnosed with cancer, she opted to tell virtually no one.
I tend to be a private person. So when I first found out I had breast cancer, in 2006, I only told a few of my co-workers at RBC. I'd been chief financial officer for about a year and a half, and I didn't want to disrupt anything at work. So I worked right through, despite needing chemotherapy and three surgeries. I had the wigs and all that.
In 2009, during the financial crisis, I had a recurrence. In the big scheme of things, a recurrence is good. It's not metastasized cancer—it's just cancer they missed. So I had two more surgeries. That same year, my brother died from colon cancer. We'd had our family genealogy done and found out we have the gene for stomach cancer, which means we have something like a 90% chance of getting it. My mother lost five brothers and sisters to cancer. So I decided to get a gastrectomy to remove my stomach, which happened in 2010.
Through it all, I thought that keeping quiet was the right thing to do. I didn't want Bay Street to speculate, and I didn't want to be defined by my illness. But it's tough, because once you make that decision, you can't talk about it.
I wish now that I had acknowledged this was not business as usual. It's unrealistic to think you can just quietly work through all of this—I got really sick after all the chemo, yet I didn't want anyone to see that, which probably made it worse. That doesn't mean you have to broadcast it in the newspaper. But who cares if the Street says something? It's fine to have people who are empathetic—they want to help, and you need their support. They know something's wrong if you take two weeks off and you don't go on vacation.
With our family history, you're always thinking, What if I get it? And then you get it. And all of a sudden, two of my siblings have it. I couldn't stay at home, because I would have been thinking about everything. I just had to go back to the office. Work took my mind off it, and I don't think the battle affected my performance all that much. If there was one blessing, it was that having cancer forced me to change my working style—to stop iterating on stuff and just make the call. Because every time you go through this, you think, What if I'm going to be off? And in the back of your mind, you think, What if I die? I don't want to put this on everyone else. That shift was very helpful during the financial crisis, because we had to make such quick decisions.
As for my family, this was way harder on my kids than I'd ever realized—something I only figured out a couple of years ago. It is devastating for a young person to hear the word "cancer" and to associate it with their parents. Just be totally open with your kids. Why wouldn't I have said to them at the time, "I'm pretty scared, I might die"? Because they were thinking it. And maybe that would have taken some of the pressure off me.
The first time I talked openly about having cancer was at the Wellspring Cancer Support Foundation's fashion show in 2012. I chaired the committee, and they asked me to be a model—but to do that, you have to publicly say that you had cancer. At first, I refused. But eventually, I did, and it was amazing. Even though my cancer was in the past, the level of support I got from everyone taught me that I put myself through something that wasn't necessary.
Former ambassador to the United States
Wilson's son Cameron died by suicide in 1995, at age 29. Since then, the former federal finance minister and Bay Street executive has dedicated himself to raising awareness of mental health issues.
The first time I spoke publicly about my son's mental health issues was at his funeral. He died in 1995, and there was a real stigma attached to talking about depression. I'd known what was going on with Cameron, but I certainly did not anticipate it would culminate in his taking his own life, and he didn't want to talk to anyone about it. He was afraid he'd lose his job and his friends. He was quite firm on his request.
After he died, I wanted people to understand that depression is not a character problem; it's a health issue. And I've continued that conversation, which has helped others come forward too. I've had people—business people—take me aside at receptions and social events, and say, "I've never talked to anyone about this before, but…" And they tell me about their mother, their brother, their father, their child. It gives them a sense of freedom, whereas before they felt they had to keep the issue in the family.
That's the change I think has happened: People are becoming more comfortable talking about these issues. The Bell Let's Talk campaign is a terrific example of how we can be more open. You can apply that to the workplace: If one of your colleagues has to take time off because of a mental illness, don't just shut the door. Keep the communication open. Have a chat with them. It will help them cope with the illness, and it also provides a more welcoming environment.
We're also seeing more things like this great initiative RBC started, oh, 10 years ago: They had an internal bulletin where they featured staff members who'd suffered from depression or bipolar or another mental illness, and who had come back to their job. So you'd see someone talking about their mental illness, and it sent a message: They're still employed by RBC.
I try to bring up this issue whenever I can. I was talking to an executive vice-president at quite a large company, for instance, and I asked him, "What are you doing to deal with mental health issues in your workplace?" And he said, "Oh, we don't really have a problem with that." So I told him, "Well, if you don't, you're a statistical aberration, because one person in five suffers from a mental illness." He stared at me with a strange look on his face. A few weeks later, he called me back and said, "I apologize. I've looked into it now. I didn't realize there was an issue at our company."
CEO and chief technology officer, OpenText
Barrenechea left Silicon Valley to become CEO of OpenText in 2012. Three years later, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that is often deadly.
Something I like to say is that I'm not the smartest person in the room, but I'll challenge anyone who says I'm not the best student. "Always be learning" is a lesson I often share with others. I encourage executives to pick one or two topics—an HR problem or a digital problem—and learn it at an atomic level. Be smarter than the people who work for you. It builds stronger teams and stronger executives. And you'll build a better business, as well.
That's the approach I brought to finding out I had cancer. I needed to know the enemy, so that's what I set out to do.
It was the beginning of 2015, and I'd been having a ton of fun. I'd been at OpenText for three years, and we were doing great—we'd had a record quarter, had just done a road tour and had raised more than $800 million in capital. We'd come off an acquisition. Everything was good. I was ready to attack the year.
But physically, I was feeling a fatigue I'd never felt before. I had turned 50 in late January and had done my annual physical, and I knew something was wrong. I'm an energetic person—I run on adrenalin, and it had helped push me through those busy months. But there was one night in February when I couldn't get out of bed. Not even to go to the bathroom. I picked up the phone and called 9-1-1, something I'd never done in my life.
An ambulance took me to the hospital—I was at my home in Berkeley, California—and they did a blood test. It came back with a white blood cell count of 330,000. In a healthy person, that number should be more like 4,000 to 10,000. For all intents and purposes, I should've been dead. A diagnosis came back very quickly: acute myeloid leukemia. A very deadly form of it.
AML is a disease that wants to win—it's going to fight you all the way. My bone marrow had basically decided to wake up and blast out immature blood cells—particularly white blood cells—like a Gatling gun, and they were starting to clog up my system.
I knew my life would never be the same, and I decided to kick into high gear and do everything I could to understand what was happening to me.
There are more than 20,000 cases of AML diagnosed every year, but there's no handbook that explains the disease. (I'm an engineer—I was looking for a Gantt chart.) But I've always had a real intellectual curiosity. I've learned to study things and examine them, and that served me well. I found out everything I could about AML: the best doctors and hospitals, and the differences between medical protocols.
I ended up checking into the Stanford Medical Center for treatment—there were a couple of experts there I really liked—and I decided to centre myself around what I loved: my family and my work. I would've been the first to back away if I thought I couldn't meet my responsibilities during my treatments, but I decided that as long as I could still function, I would keep working. So I put together a committee to help me do that, and I set up an office in my hospital room. I moved in a table, a computer screen, a printer, a scanner. And I also jumped into treatment.
At this point, given what we knew, I faced a 50% chance of death in five years. Or, put differently, a 50% chance of living. They were good enough odds to keep going. Any odds are enough to keep going.
This was going to be a fight, a fight like I'd never had in my life, and I wanted to do everything I could to stay strong. On the door of my room, I posted a poem that helped focus me. It was Invictus by William Henley. The last stanza reads: "It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." Stanford was actually building a new wing at the time, and I went outside at one point after I'd started treatment and wrote that poem on a white construction beam. It's still there, and I like to think that it'll be there forever.
My treatment started with 10 injections of a drug that was basically chemotherapy. It failed. So we did another round. That failed too. It became clear we couldn't control the disease.
What we found was that the first time the chemo hit, the cancer mutated. It was like throwing gasoline on a fire—we had a mutation that was basically saying, "Regardless of what you throw at me, I'm going to accelerate."
My chance of living went down significantly at that point. It was one of four moments during my treatment that I call Matterhorn Moments, when I knew I was going to have to scale a pretty huge mountain. So I expanded my field of experts. We partnered with the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and created a new protocol that would go in and manipulate my DNA and trick the mutation. It was semi-experimental, but there was no choice but to go for it.
I realized that, regardless of the scenario, I was getting closer to freedom. Either it was death, which was a type of freedom, or we were going to cure this thing. Either way, we were going to get there.
So we went through 10 more injections. Round three failed. Round four? Failed. Round five failed. That was Matterhorn Moment No. 2: Do you keep injecting your body with these drugs, or do you let nature take its course? We decided to keep going. Round six was a success. It was complete molecular remission. But now I faced a choice: There was a reasonable chance the disease would come back. If I wanted to go for the long-term win, I needed a stem-cell transplant.
To get a stem cell donor, though, you need to look for someone with a blood type match and a genetic match—usually a family member. Sadly for me, there was no such match. I'm adopted.
I'd never really had an interest in finding my natural family. But I hired a detective and found my mom, who had passed away. I think I found my father, though we don't know for sure, and we found a brother and an aunt. But for whatever reason, they had no interest in connecting with me. Out of the eight million people enrolled in the stem-cell registry, there was no good match. That was Matterhorn Moment No. 3.
So we widened the search criteria and the risk ratio we were prepared to accept—a transplant that goes wrong can kill you—and found a match in Germany. Some great Samaritan laid down on a slab and got two big needles stuck down into their pelvic bones to have their bone marrow sucked out for me.
We did the transplant. But bone marrow is an organ, even though it isn't classified that way, and your donor organ is going to fight you. Doctors can dial back that fight, but my doctor believed that this fight might be the magic trick to a permanent cure, so we let it fight, and it was not fun. That was my last Matterhorn Moment. After everything I went through, did it work? Yes. My biopsy came back negative, and my blood type even switched, from O positive to A negative—the blood type of my donor.
Still, doctors won't say I'm cured. They talk about disease-free living, event-free living, but they will never use the word cure. I keep pushing my doctor to say it—to just say it once. I'm pretty persuasive. I may get him there.
In the end, I had 67 injections of chemo, received 36 bags of blood, lost my immune system seven times and never missed a day of work. Through it all, I was clear with everyone at OpenText about what was going on. That was really important to me. I wasn't worried about how the news would be received, because ultimately, the company is more than just me, and I knew OpenText would be okay.
When I think about how my cancer has changed the company, and changed me, I think that culturally, we've become a very compassionate and caring place, and it's been a lasting change.
When I was going through treatments, people from all over the company reached out to me. We have more than 1,000 employees in India, and they all got together to perform and record a spiritual event for me. My team in Japan made 1,000 paper cranes. Just talking about that brings tears to my eyes. And when I got back to work, I made a video where I talked about my cancer experience, because I wanted everyone to know about it so that people could learn from what I went through.
Mutual respect and caring came out all over the company. It was always there, but this event really brought it to the forefront. And I still hear from people today—employees who have cancer or who know others who have cancer, and they want to talk about it with me. I've received hundreds of notes like that from people at the company. And I've answered every single one.
President, FedEx Canada
Lisson was vice-president of marketing at FedEx Canada, with four young kids, when her husband had a heart attack and fell into a coma. She published a memoir about her experience, called Resilience: Navigating Life, Loss and the Road to Success.
Life is not about what happens to you. It's about what you choose to do with what happens. That was something my mother always said, and those words felt so true to me after what happened with my husband, Patrick.
It was around one o'clock in the morning on Aug. 13, 2007. I was sleeping, and I heard this loud thump. I sat right up in bed, clicked on my light and saw Pat lying on the floor. I looked at him, looked at his chest and thought, Oh my gosh, he's not breathing. I phoned 9-1-1, and I remember thinking, Don't you die on me. I said that in my head, over and over. Come on, come on back… Don't you die on me.
Pat was my high school sweetheart and the love of my life, and he'd always been a lucky guy. So while I waited for the ambulance, I told myself he was going to be fine.
At the hospital, they said he'd had a heart attack, and when his heart had stopped beating, it cut off the flow of oxygen to his brain and caused it to swell. They'd put him in a coma to reduce the brain activity and slow the swelling. Patrick was going to wake up and be fine, I thought.
But by day eight, he still hadn't woken up. The head neurologist laid out the facts: Pat was in a vegetative state and severely brain damaged. If I kept him alive, he would have no quality of life.
I asked the neurologist whether miracles ever happened. "Every day," he said. So I told him I wanted to see if I would get mine. I wanted to keep Pat alive. I didn't visualize him spending the rest of his life on a ventilator. I pictured him making a full recovery.
After about three months, he was still in a coma, and I decided to go back to work. But I wanted to keep quiet about my situation. In my personal life, I had enough people texting and calling me. I really wanted my job to be an escape from all that. So at first, at least, I only told the company president. It was a survival choice for me—the only way I could cope. But oh, how it changed me.
In meetings, I'd look around and think, I wonder how many of you are dealing with something personal? A sick child, a miscarriage, a loved one battling cancer? It made me realize that a lot of people come to work dealing with these things, and you really have no idea. So what it caused me to do was say, "Is everything okay? I noticed you haven't been yourself." And sometimes I'd end up confiding in them, too, about Pat being in hospital. It really helped me establish bonds with people. When you're dealing with a personal trauma, you want to talk about it. When I did, it sometimes felt as if an elastic band wrapped around my heart had been released.
Pat was in a coma for two years, and over that time, I learned a lot of practical coping skills. I started carrying a notebook everywhere, for example, to jot down things I was afraid I would forget. I'm still obsessed with making lists to capture things that I need to do—every Sunday, I sit down and pull from my notes and make a list of things I need to take action on that week.
I also trained myself to think in 24-hour increments when I was feeling overwhelmed and didn't know how to cope. There were times when I was really, really struggling just to get out of bed. My mind would be racing backward, thinking about Pat, and I had to say to myself, What's in front of you? Just look at the next 24 hours.
In the end, no thundering voice came down from the heavens to tell me it was time to take Pat off life support. I just knew. I'd moved him into a long-term facility, and after that, his health began to deteriorate. It was one thing after another.
Near the end, my mom, a girlfriend and I went to Toronto to have dinner and see a show. I knew I had to make a decision—I was just prolonging the inevitable. And yet, I couldn't bring myself to take Pat off life support. As we were exiting the parking lot, I noticed an object glittering at my feet. I picked it up. It was a diamond cross, dangling from a necklace. I can't explain why finding that necklace felt meaningful to me. All I know is that before I could let Pat go, I needed some external reassurance that fate was guiding my hand. For whatever reason, that lost necklace gave me the reassurance I needed.
I asked the doctors to take Pat off life support. I'd begun to see that letting go of his life didn't have to mean the end of mine.
Learning to look forward, rather than backward, has become a big thing for me. In the past, I used to spend too much time thinking about how we'd gotten into a bad situation. But now, I ask, "Is there anything we can do to change this? What's the path forward? Let's focus on that." I'm still interested in learning from the past, so I go back later and figure out what we can learn from it. But my first priority now is always moving forward.
It may sound funny, but I think this experience, and how I handled it, had a lot to do with my assuming the position I have today. Almost a year to the month that Pat passed away, I was promoted to president of FedEx Canada. I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but how I carried myself—how I managed my work during those painful, challenging two years—helped others see what I was capable of.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.