How to Keep Your Business Running When You Have a Serious Illness

The inspiring story of how an entrepreneur kept her business afloat through a battle with breast cancer, and five tips for dealing with a health crisis while running a business.

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By Lisa Evans

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

A cancer diagnosis can turn anyone's life upside down, but for entrepreneurs the diagnosis can put their business at risk. When Wendy Guarisco, owner of The Guarisco Group, a small media relations business in Atlanta, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she worried it would be the end of her business. "I was terrified because I'm the sole breadwinner in our family. My husband was laid off a while ago. We have a child. If my business went away, it would have been a disaster," she says.

Guarisco managed to do what at first seemed impossible -- she kept her company running through a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. Here she offers her tips to entrepreneurs how to stay afloat during a health crisis.

Related: Google CEO Larry Page's Vocal Condition and Breaking the Silence About Illness

1. Make use of technology.
Most of Guarisco's clients are based in different cities, so avoiding face-to-face meetings was easy. "With smartphones and the internet, I could run my business from a doctor's office or a hospital bed," she says. Since Guarisco opted to have a double mastectomy rather than undergo a six-week course of radiation, her recovery time was shorter.

"I was only completely out of it for the three days that I was in the hospital," she says. After being released, she had drains on both sides of her body, for two weeks, but conducted her business from bed and arranged her meetings between doctor's visits.

2. Let established clients know.
While your instinct might be to hide the news of your illness from clients for fear they will leave, Guarisco was upfront with her most established clients about her diagnosis and credits her honesty with keeping all of her clients throughout her illness. "Most of my clients are like family and they knew from the get-go what was happening and [they] were so understanding," she says.

Guarisco explained to most of her clients that her husband would be managing media requests during her surgeries. She only withheld news of her illness from two newer clients who she didn't feel close enough to share the news with and simply informed them she would be away for a few days.

Related: How to Break Bad News to Clients

3. Research financial aid to help cover medical costs.
As an entrepreneur Guarisco didn't have the health insurance benefits that she had when she worked for a large company. The cost of her treatment was a major concern.

Fortunately, a nurse at her plastic surgeon's office informed her she could get access to emergency Medicaid. Although she assumed her income would be too high to qualify, she found out with breast cancer, aid for mastectomy surgery is granted not based on income, but on the diagnosis. Guarisco advises entrepreneurs to seek out financial support, even if you think you may not qualify.

4. Establish a contingency plan.
At the time of her diagnosis, Guarisco had two employees -- her husband and an assistant. Guarisco says and her experience with cancer taught her the importance of planning for disaster before it strikes. "I never even thought about [a contingency plan], but I'm making sure now that whatever happens, we can at least get through a week or two," she says.

Guarisco has hired a few more staff members and keeps them updated on all clients, "If one of my assistants falls ill, the other can step right in because they;re up to speed," she says.

5. Let go of control.
"Delegating is the hardest thing I've had to wrestle with," admits Guarisco, who prides herself on being a strong, independent operator. While she was in the hospital, she relied upon her husband to answer phone calls, manage emails, get pitches out and make calls to media.

Her experience with cancer taught her that letting go of the reins is a necessary skill and she has since improve her delegating skills. "Having help frees me up to think about the big thoughts as the business owner," she says.

Related: How to Thrive During Tough Times

Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is a health and lifestyle freelance journalist from Toronto.

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