Better business person
Self Care,  Work

Why Cancer Made Me A Better Business Person

I’ve been in business for 30+ years, a VP of Marketing and an entrepreneur for sixteen years at the helm of my own marketing communications firm, and a mentor to tech startups for the same length of time. I thought I understood what it takes to make it in business. That said, going through a breast cancer experience has made me a better business person. 

Who knew? It turns out that all the skills you need to muster to get through cancer are equally valuable to be successful in your work life. 

Here are just a handful of the characteristics that are highly valued in business and in entrepreneurship that also happen to be part of the tool kit for navigating cancer.


When I first heard the words cancer, I was shocked, terrified and anxious. It was truly one of the worst times of my life. The four-week wait between hearing of my diagnosis and my biopsy were some of the worst in my life. I was numb. Panicked. Horribly anxious. I am typically a pretty resilient person but gosh, I felt it was escaping me. I had to learn new skills to get me through that time. I worked with a therapist. I learned deep breathing techniques. I practiced meditation and embraced gentle movement. I also exercised like mad, walking miles and doing shadowboxing to release the pent-up anxiety. I also advocated for myself, with my doctor who prescribed some anxiety medication (go figure I’ve been high-functioning anxious all my life – untreated), and went for regular massages. 

Then, a few months later, shortly after starting chemotherapy I met with my doctor to hear the results of my full body CT and bone scan. The findings were worrying, they saw some spots on my liver and my lung and ordered an MRI on the liver to investigate. And yet, as awful as that sounds, and believe me I took a day to digest and feel sorry for myself, I quickly talked myself into a better head space, took a long, fast walk and faced this next hurdle head-on. Good news – it was nothing. The point is, that in the words of my daughter, “mum you are bouncing back faster and faster.”

Resilience is a critical quality in business. It can help you rebound from obstacles and disappointments and manage stress. But to practice resilience in business you need to trust in yourself and others, engage in self-care, and deal with issues proactively. Sound familiar? 


I have always been a rather self-conscious woman. A little down on myself to be honest. Worried what others think of me. Never slender enough, or pretty enough or accomplished enough. Stupid self-talk. Then along came breast cancer and with it, took away every bit of female identity I “thought” was important. I lost my breasts, my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows. And yet, throughout the experience, I felt quite beautiful.  I learned to accept that there is tremendous beauty in bravery. 

Self-acceptance as a business quality means that you have the maturity to recognize that you may not have all the answers — and that’s ok. You understand that life is a journey of learning and discovery. It allows you to move forward and engage with confidence. A self-accepting leader will openly admit they need the strengths and talent of others to succeed and know that the sum is greater than the individual parts. 


As I became more self-accepting, I also became more authentic. I love my body and its flaws. It’s far from perfect but I admire its strength and power. I am grateful for movement each day.  I am absolutely imperfect now with two large scars arcing across my chest. However I see them as badges of honor and show them off proudly (yes even to the world in People Magazine).  I don’t hide from the fact that I do not have breasts anymore. I wear clothing that clearly reveals that fact, and have leaned into it, buying backless dresses, plunging necklines, halters and items with spaghetti straps. When my hair grew in salt and pepper, I embraced it and my new chemo curls. I’ll never colour it again. And those who follow me on my Instagram account, FlatPlease, you’ll often see me posting from my bathrobe, curls askew, wearing zero makeup. 

I used to say “I love you” to others a lot but never to myself. And now I authentically do. And once and a while, I say no. I’m here on this planet to enjoy each day, not to serve or please others, unless it pleases me as well. I’m true to myself. 

Authentic business leaders are humble. They are driven by purpose and passion. They have and are connected to their values, and ensure that those values guide every decision. They recognize that perfection is something to strive for, but it is rarely the end state. They practice and express authentic gratitude and kindness toward others. They know that learning comes from failure, and openly and generously share their learnings with others. 


Boy, do you have to connect with grit when they tell you that you have cancer. No one volunteers to get cancer or to give up close to a year of their life to fighting a disease with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I remember vividly giving myself a pep talk every morning when I’d wake up feeling like I was in a daytime nightmare. I used to say “put your feet on the floor Ellyn and keep going. The only way around this is through it.”  I had to muster every ounce of grit to push down my fears, show up at appointments informed and ready to engage. I needed to have open scary conversations with others about their journey so I could better arm myself. I needed to hear bad news and worst-case scenarios shared me by my doctors and then, persist to find a way forward. I needed to train my body so it was the best possible condition to recover from surgery and to endure treatments. And even to this day, when my joints hurt and I feel like the Tin Man the morning, I still keep exercising and moving. Ok maybe I’m not engaging in jump back planks and burpees these days because my toes are creaky, but dammit I’m still slogging. 

Grit in business allows entrepreneurs and founders to grind away at building a business and to realize their dreams. I see this all the time in the startup founders I mentor. It is a quality I greatly admire. They have a vivid picture of how the world should be and the problem they want to solve. Building a business from scratch, with huge headwinds and no money is really hard. You make huge sacrifices financially, personally to make it happen. But with focus, deep commitment and perseverance, it can happen. I’m taking every lesson about grit I learned from the founders I have coached and I am now putting it all into practice as I build out the AskEllyn brand and my new non-profit The Lyndall Project.


Cancer people are some of the toughest, most tenacious and most badass humans I know. They don’t do this by choice, but it takes guts to show up for doctors appointments, and chemotherapy sessions, fight through side effects and overcome the associated trauma that surrounds the whole ordeal. They not only have to motivate themselves, but they cheerlead for others around them. And every cancer patient I know has a clear goal – to get through this mess and get on with life. 

Tenacity in business is characterized by all the same qualities. It is that ability to stick with something even if it hard or a project has gone off the rails. It is digging in to find answers to tough problems. It means sticking up for yourself and your ideas. And it means setting goals, achieving those goals, and then setting new ones. 


It is stating the obvious to say that it takes courage to get through a cancer diagnosis. As I’ve already said here, hearing and digesting the news, and submitting to procedures that are painful, traumatic and that have lingering side effects or cause permanent damage is hard. You need to consistently pull yourself up by the bootstraps because no one else can do it for you. It depends on the person. Some balk at the idea of being called brave. And its true, we aren’t brave. We didn’t choose this pathway. We’re scared pretty much shitless every step of the way. But we continue forward and we walk across the bed of fire because we have no other choice. That to me is courageous. 

Courage in business means having the presence of mind and self-confidence to stand up for your rights and say no when something challenges your values. It means persevering when things get hard.  It allows people to set boundaries for themselves. Courage is about being vulnerable, admitting a weakness or a lack of knowledge and its about asking for help. 


And finally, this brings me to purpose. I will assure you, I didn’t wake up from surgery thinking “let’s become an advocate and help others with cancer, Ellyn.” Hardly. But this cancer journey has led me to an unexpected place and pathway forward. I feel that the universe had its purpose and intention when it had cancer choose me. I feel more alive, and more purposeful now than I ever have. I can see the world I want to create for others with incredible clarity now and that is tremendously fulfilling. 

Purpose in business is our mission, our why, our north star. It’s about finding meaning in what you do. It propels you forward. It allows you to connect with that grit and tenacity we talked about earlier and the courage to do the hard things. And it’s about making a difference in the world for yourself and for others. 

When I was diagnosed, a friend of mine gifted me the book The Daily Stoic. Immediately the principal Amor Fati resonated with me. So much so, I bought a coin with the saying on it and carried it everywhere and to every appointment. It means love your fate. 

Life is short, do the thing. And do it now. Because we don’t know what tomorrow holds. 

Ellyn Winters-Robinson is a breast cancer survivor, entrepreneur, author, in-demand speaker, women’s health advocate, professional communicator and a globally recognized health rebel. Ellyn's best-selling book "Flat Please Hold the Shame," is a girlfriend’s companion guide for those on the breast cancer journey. She is also the co-creator of, the world’s first conversational AI companion for those on the breast cancer journey. With Dense Breasts Canada and award-winning photographer Hilary Gauld, Ellyn also co-produced I WANT YOU TO KNOW, a celebrated photo essay showing the diverse faces and stories of 31 individuals on the breast cancer journey. Ellyn’s story and have been featured in People Magazine, Chatelaine Magazine, the Globe and Mail, CTV National News and Your Morning, and Fast Company.


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