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In Business With Breast Cancer

These 4 women entrepreneurs survived breast cancer and their businesses did, too.


When an entrepreneur is diagnosed with breast cancer, she has to rethink everything about her business: from figuring out whether to tell clients about the cancer to how she'll cope with the treatments to what would happen to the business if she couldn't return. Meet four women entrepreneurs who have survived breast cancer, and learn how they refocused their priorities and kept their businesses running through treatment and beyond.

The Diagnosis

Lizabeth Ardisana was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 1999, on the Friday morning before Labor Day. She was about to leave on a two-week vacation. Her doctor had called her in to go over her biopsy results, which he thought would be normal. But when she got into the office, she knew something was wrong; the nurse was crying. The doctor said, "Huge surprise, but you have cancer."

After Ardisana got over her momentary shock at the diagnosis, her first thought was her vacation. She physically felt fine and wanted to go. So she negotiated with her doctor and took a battery of tests so they'd be ready to start treatment when she returned.

Because her appointment was running long, Ardisana, founder of 20-year-old marketing, consulting and staffing firm ASG Renaissance in Dearborn, Michigan, started receiving phone calls from her clients. She was late for meetings. She simply told her clients she had cancer and she'd talk to them later. "Nothing shuts a phone call down faster than that," says Ardisana.

Ardisana, 55, did have one client, though, who wouldn't reschedule. He'd flown up from Florida and insisted on meeting with her later that afternoon. She met with him, though she couldn't concentrate, and ultimately didn't end up working with him.

"Some clients are very sympathetic and others couldn't care less," says Ardisana, who believes she had to inform all her clients. "You can't let them just think you've lost interest in them, right?"

To Tell or Not to Tell

Not all entrepreneurs want their clients to know they have cancer. When Paula Lovell, president of Lovell Communications Inc., a 20-year-old PR and marketing communications firm in Nashville, was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, she told her 10 employees, but had them help hide her diagnosis from clients for fear she'd lose business. "Folks are odd when it comes to sick people, and I was afraid that they might not want to do business with us," says Lovell, 56. "I didn't want that to be an option."

Lovell hid her cancer from all but one client for more than a year--until she was done with treatment and couldn't stand her wig any longer. When she had a half-inch of hair on her head, she decided to show the world that she'd gone through chemotherapy. And when people would ask about it, she'd say, "I was sick, but I'm well now." Says Lovell, "I didn't want people to feel sorry for me. It was a big deal in my life and it's in my past."

There can also be a certain shame in telling people. Donna Zobel, president of Myron Zucker, a manufacturer of electrical components that improve industrial motor efficiency and reduce energy costs, didn't want to tell anybody about her breast cancer when she was diagnosed. "At first I was almost embarrassed by it," she says.

In 2004, Zobel was brought into a failing family business to help turn it around after her father passed away. A year and a half later, while in the process of downsizing and moving the company from Royal Oak to Sterling Heights, Michigan, she was self-diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45.

When she did start telling clients she had breast cancer, the result was surprising: "In many ways, it has allowed me to connect to customers and suppliers and others in my industry," says Zobel. "Cancer has touched a lot of lives and it gives us something sometimes to talk about."

Zobel says her initial fear about telling people came down to a deeply ingrained insecurity as a woman entrepreneur. "We've spent our lives assuring everyone that we're strong and confident and can conquer all," says Zobel, "and here we are dealing with something we don't know anything about."

Giving Up Control

Facing the unknown can make an entrepreneur rethink her business and her role in it. "I tended to do everything on my own prior to that," says Zobel. "When I was diagnosed, I had to look at the people around me and say, 'Can you help?'"

Three of Zobel's brothers work for her, and all of her 10 employees have been with the company at least 10 years. "They rose to the occasion," she says. "In fact, what I learned is that everyone has the capability to lead when they're given the chance."

Ardisana also learned a quick lesson in giving up control. Though her husband is a co-owner of their $20 million company that has 250 employees and seven offices, his duties are very different from hers--and he also had to help take care of her at home--so she started delegating to her employees. Her team stepped up, took on more responsibility and "did it better than I would have done it," she says.

Ardisana also took the opportunity to reassess her management style. Things like micromanaging employees seemed far less important to her. And while she was freed from many day-to-day issues, all this newfound free time let Ardisana take a good look at the bigger picture of the business.

Not all entrepreneurs, however, give more control to employees. Ethel Kessler, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 44, realized that once her treatments were over, she would have to lay off her six employees and turn the business into a sole proprietorship because she couldn't afford to keep them on and take her company digital to keep up with the technology changes in the design industry.

"As a small-business owner, you're wearing six or seven hats," says the president and creative director of 26-year-old Kessler Design Group, a graphic design firm in Bethesda, Maryland. "I was doing the billing. I was doing the client meetings. I just didn't have the energy anymore to produce enough for the staff."

Getting Treatment

A drop in energy due to chemotherapy or radiation can affect a business substantially. Though Kessler never missed a day of work during her three months of radiation treatments, the formerly high-energy designer had to come to terms with her illness. "I would be so exhausted, so fatigued, that once in a chair I couldn't get up and get out," says Kessler. "It was shocking and scary."

Some entrepreneurs are hardly able to work at all through treatments. For nearly a year, Lovell felt severely affected by her treatment and could only work part time. "I did come in, but I couldn't focus very well and I didn't want anyone to know that," she says. Still, she would try to "raise the flag" a couple times a week and stay in touch with what was going on in the office. She also had to completely shut down new business development until she was well, which was particularly nerve-wracking.

Before her treatment, Lovell was a healthy, active single mom who was used to pushing herself. While going through treatment, she constantly had to stop and re-evaluate what she was doing and how hard she should be working. "The doctors will say, 'Do what you feel like doing,'" she says. "But if you're an entrepreneur, you're so used to pushing yourself hard all the time that when someone says to you, 'Just do what you feel like,' that doesn't resonate."

Other women are luckier when it comes to their treatment. Zobel had to take a week off for her lumpectomy, but when she started chemotherapy in 2006, she had a mild reaction and only had to miss two days every two weeks over the course of her treatment. After that, her radiation treatments took her away from her business for six weeks, since she was treated out of town, but she was still able to work remotely. Throughout, she just worked her business schedule around her medical schedule. "Part of my business was my treatment," she says. "You work it into your life."

Wearing Wigs

When Ardisana started chemotherapy, she didn't shave her head; she played around with different haircuts and honestly believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her hair would stay put. Then, the evening before a big, last-minute meeting with new prospective clients, it started falling out. She arranged to get a wig immediately and by the morning, she needed it--her hair was gone.

She went into the meeting feeling nervous. Things weren't going well, and as the meeting wore on, she felt that everyone was staring at her wig. Her paranoia took over and she became convinced her wig was crooked. When faced with a question about whether she attended an event--which was on a day she'd had chemo--she had a mini meltdown and blurted out, "I couldn't attend because I was having chemo and this is a wig."

The comment stopped the entire room--and it broke the ice. The clients had no idea she was wearing a wig, and it started a discussion that ultimately led to a new account. From then on, Ardisana, who never missed a day of work during treatment, always shared that she was wearing a wig with clients and says the wig ended up being one of her best assets. "It never fails. It starts a conversation," she says.

Some women, though, choose not to wear wigs altogether. Zobel rarely wore hers and found her baldness empowering. "I felt that breast cancer shouldn't be alarming anymore," she says. "If we're going to get better at diagnosing breast cancer and finding it early, then people should be comfortable understanding the side effects of the treatment."

Getting Involved

Though Zobel made her breast cancer treatment very public, she shied away from supporting breast cancer organizations. "Because it became so much of my life," says Zobel, "I didn't want to see a pink ribbon anywhere. I didn't want to get involved." Only now, two years after her diagnosis, is she participating in Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on the urging of another breast cancer survivor.

Ardisana, however, says she has been involved with every breast cancer cause she can find, including being on the boards of two hospitals and working with many of her automotive clients to share their manufacturing strengths with the health-care industry. "I want a cure," she says. "I want treatment to be better. When you sort of blindly go through your life without any health issues, you don't realize the number of people who are impacted by them."

Lovell not only personally takes part in causes, but she also volunteers her firm to do PR and marketing jobs for health-care nonprofits, and her office has a "Paula team" for Race for the Cure. Through referrals from a network of friends, Lovell counsels local women entrepreneurs who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. She also helps support a free mammogram program at a local Nashville hospital and is on the marketing advisory board of Vanderbilt Cancer Center.

Kessler had a unique opportunity to align a part of her design company with a breast cancer cause. One of her long-time clients, the U.S. Postal Service, asked her to be on its team of art directors as an independent contractor in 1996. A year later, Congress passed a bill for a stamp that would raise money for breast cancer research, and Kessler was tapped to direct the project.

She was thrilled. Her business was at a low point after she got rid of her employees, but the downsizing worked to her benefit because it freed her up for the stamp project. "Nine years, 900 million stamps and $60 million later, the success of the breast cancer stamp has been an unbelievable career milestone," says Kessler, whose company is now bringing in more than $400,000 a year.

Kessler currently has one employee, has directed the art for 200 stamps and has switched the focus of her business from designing graphics and exhibits for organizations like the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic TV to designing stamps as well as brochures, mostly in the health field.

Moving On

After seeing what a great job her staff was able to do when given the chance, Zobel has put a succession plan in place for her more than $1 million business, but isn't planning on going anywhere anytime soon. "I'm probably more passionate about the business than ever before," she says about the business that she's brought back into the black. "I know that the dreams that I have for the business--if people will follow my plan and abide by the rules of my trust--that these things will become reality."

Lovell also created a succession plan. She has eased out of day-to-day operations and account management and is now focusing on company growth, strategy and talent development. And since she has been cancer-free, she has grown her company to 13 employees and more than $2 million in annual sales.

"I say cancer was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to me," says Lovell. "It was bad because it's still scary to this day. By the same token, I feel so much stronger because this company is on its own legs, not mine."