This week marks five years since my unexpected hospital visit to have an aggressive melanoma cut out of the top of my left thigh. You can read about it here and here.

The short version is I noticed a large freckle, that had been there since I was 15 (hello blistery sunburn while on the Manly ferry in November 1985!), had turned ugly – black, raised, jagged edges, pale pigmentation around it. It was the pigmentation, about the size of a 5 cent coin, that was the melanoma.

Like many, I was rather blasé about my diagnosis. I certainly didn’t fully understand its significance until the surgeon later told me if it wasn’t removed when it was (less than a week after my original doctor’s appointment), chances were it would have been a stage 4 melanoma within a month, and I’d be dead within a year. Shortly after that conversation I also received a letter saying I’m now on the national cancer register. Talk about sobering!

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of being cancer free is a really big deal. Cancer survival statistics are measured in one, five and ten-year increments, and for melanoma, the five-year survival rate is 92%. This seems high, and it is, but so is an 8% non-survival rate. Just ask the family of my beautiful friend Emma who died from melanoma when she was 25, three years after her diagnosis.

What having melanoma has taught me - 9 lessons for business and life

It is with an enormous sense of relief I can now say I’m cancer-free. I have had my last visit to my surgeon, who wished me a happy and healthy life. I told him, in the nicest possible way, I hoped to not see him again.

Having, and surviving, melanoma has taught me a lot in the last five years, and I thought I would share a few of my thoughts with you. Most of these lessons can also be applied to business.

Lessons for business and life

1. If something looks or feels wrong, ask questions

Earlier in my career, I worked at the Queensland Office of Fair Trading. We frequently told our audience “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is”. We encouraged people to ask questions if they were made an offer that didn’t pass the “sniff” test!

In terms of your health, get to know your body. If something changes, or doesn’t quite feel as it usually does, get it checked out. Immediately. It could save your life.

2. Go with your gut

All my bad business decisions have come about from ignoring that niggling feeling in my gut that says “something isn’t quite right here”. As I’ve grown older, I have learned to trust my gut FAR more than when I was in my teens and 20s.

The reason I had my melanoma checked out when I did is that I had a really strong gut feeling that it was something bad. I’d only been to see my doctor a month earlier and really didn’t want to see her again so soon. I thought “nah, I’ll just wait until my next appointment in April”. That night I had a dream I died from melanoma because I didn’t get it checked. I was on the phone to the medical centre the moment they opened the next morning!

3. Life is short, do what you love

Growing up it was expected that I would do work I love with people whose company I value and enjoy. My parents were excellent role models who lived life to the max. I have few memories of them complaining, especially about work – that’s not to say they didn’t, but it wasn’t the default that so many seem to have.

I’ve almost always loved my work. And when I haven’t, I’ve taken steps to make changes. Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is a sure-fire way to re-evaluate what’s important. I had already been reassessing and making some life and business changes following the premature and unexpected deaths of mum and dad a couple of years earlier, but this diagnosis, coming before Christmas, when I usually spend time in reflection, really helped me reconsider what was important and what I wanted to achieve.

I have made a lot of changes to how I live my life and how I run my practice over the last five years. I am far more particular about the type of work I do and who I do it with. I can say, hand on heart, I have loved every piece of work I have undertaken in the last two years. With the exception of the client I said yes to when my gut was screaming NO, DON’T DO IT!!! Some lessons take a while to learn!

4. Expect the best, prepare for the worst

I’ve always been a bit of a Pollyanna, where I see the best in people, opportunities and experiences. That isn’t to say I’m naive and don’t prepare for bad stuff. Because I do.

In business, and in life, you need a backup plan just in case things go wrong. Do you have a business continuity plan (my friend Samantha can help you if you don’t!)? Do you have the right insurances, personal and professional? Do you have some spare cash, or can you access it, if you need to?

I was lucky my melanoma surgery recovery time was over Christmas, when we had no plans, and I had no client-facing work. Had it happened in September it would have been far more tricky!

5. Focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t

A lot of people are worriers, and they worry about things they have no control over. While I have never really been one of those people, there have definitely been times when I have expended far too much energy stressing out!

Over the years I have thankfully realised there is no point worrying about people or things I have no control over. Seriously, life is far too short to expend that negative energy!

Focus on what you can control and change:

  • being kind
  • having a positive attitude
  • showing gratitude
  • happiness
  • how you speak to people – words and tone
  • your reaction to what happens to you
  • how you spend your time
  • what you spend your money on
  • who you work with
  • the type of work you do, the clients you choose, how you structure your workday
  • your business systems and processes
  • the energy you give out
  • what you eat and drink
  • your friends
  • your social media accounts and profile
  • how much time you spend exercising, watching TV, with people you love, with people you loathe.

There are so many things in life we can’t control – try not to focus on those:

  • what people think and say to you and about you
  • how other people drive… and the volume of traffic on the road!
  • what others do to you – and to themselves
  • the weather!
  • other people’s issues, attitudes and values
  • the speed of time
  • the past
  • getting older
  • your family
  • other people’s social media accounts
  • having everyone love us
  • getting cancer or some other horrible illness
  • death.

6. A positive mindset can help you deal with the more difficult challenges

When my melanoma was removed I was surprised by how calm I was. I assumed it was now all OK, and that I would go on to live a long and healthy life. Partly this was my naivety about not fully realising how serious it was, but largely it was because I knew I couldn’t actually do anything else in the immediate future. I was far more upset about how poorly the Australian cricket team was performing as none of the Test matches that summer lasted more than three days, and I was couch-bound for a few weeks!! #crickettragic

I believe that key to having a positive mindset is being grateful. And there is loads of research that shows being grateful can increase your energy, improve your mood, make you feel more optimistic and boost your self-esteem. From a personal and a business perspective this can only be a good thing.

Did you know that practicing gratitude for as little as 30 seconds a day can reduce your stress hormones, increase the flow of oxygen to your body and make you happier?

7. People are inherently kind and want to help, but you need to ask!

There have been a few really shitty times in my life when I’ve been reminded of the inherent kindness of humanity. When mum and dad died, during the Brisbane floods (which fortunately didn’t affect my home), and when I was diagnosed with melanoma. The extreme kindness of friends and strangers during these times was often overwhelming.

I’ve also experienced many times when I have asked for help, and kindness has flowed. When I started my business I emailed about 100 people to tell them I was now working for myself and if they knew anyone who needed my services, could they please pass along my details and/or introduce me. I had my first client, thanks to that email, about 48 hours later.

Today many of my clients find me through the kindness of others passing along my details, or sharing my blog posts, or buying my book to give to a friend or colleague or writing me a recommendation on LinkedIn – if this is you, THANK YOU!

I have found, however, that while people love to help, and need to feel needed, you often need to ask first. Some client satisfaction research I undertook for a client a few years ago showed his clients LOVED him but didn’t refer him because he hadn’t ever asked them to. That was a lesson for us both.

If you’re in a situation where you need some personal support and a bit of extra help – perhaps you’ve had a baby, lost a loved one, are ill, moving house or any other reason, check out the fabulous website Gather My Crew. It’s a free, online help roster that uses technology to make it easy to ask for and coordinate the right kind of help from friends and family when going through a tough time by linking your own network of ‘helpers’. #notsponsored

8. Everyone’s situation is different

I cannot stress this enough, but when someone tells you their current horror story, whether it’s business or personal, do not compare it to yours. The number of people who tried to one-up my melanoma by saying “oh, I’ve had a BCC burnt off” is ridiculous. IT IS NOT THE SAME, and frankly, all I wanted to say was f*** off. I was fragile dammit! And I wanted sympathy, love and gin! Especially gin.

The correct response to bad news is to say “I’m so sorry to hear that, would you like a large gin? how can I help?”.

9. Get your skin checked. And your blood pressure, your heart, your kidneys, your liver and all your other bits.

My final message is to take preventative action. Be it your personal or your business health. Ideally both.

Schedule regular personal health checks – for your skin, your boobs, balls, eyes, teeth, blood pressure, heart, liver, kidneys. Allocate a regular time each year to get this all done.

Schedule regular health checks for your business – know your numbers (check this weekly!), review your insurances, thank your clients, review your branding, website, social media, your workforce/contractors/suppliers.

With that, have a peaceful Christmas and New Year, and I’ll talk to you again in 2019!

Mel Kettle works with CEOs, Boards, leaders and organisations to help them communicate and engage using digital and social media. Download her latest whitepaper, The Social CEO – from invisible to influencer.

To inquire about working with Mel, and to find out about her Social CEO program, please email mel@melkettle.com or call her on 0404 600 889. Order a signed copy of Mel’s book, The Social Association – 5 key skills not-for-profits need to increase member engagement, generate ROI and create a thriving online community, published in February 2018.

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