Battling Cancer as a Tech CEO and Parent

How one founder plans to juggle cancer, running her business and family time. By Debbie Madden (CEO, Stride) It was 9:08 a.m. on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. I dropped off my daughter at school. I was at work, coffee in hand, going through emails. My cell phone rang. On the other end was my doctor, who whispered: “Debbie, Your biopsy results are in. You have stage 2 breast cancer.” It’s been a mere few weeks since that phone call. In the blink of an eye, I’ve had to take stock of the priorities in my life and embrace this new normal. Although my journey with breast cancer is only just beginning, I’ve already learned some hard and fast truths in a short amount of time, ones that I truly believe have made me a better mother, wife, executive and cancer patient. How? First, I took stock of the big buckets, what defines me, what makes me proud to be me:

  • I am a female CEO in NYC Tech
  • I am a wife, and a working mom of two grade school kids, ages 8 and 10
  • I am a breast cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy for the next five months

Yes, I am proud to be undergoing chemotherapy, because this is my cure. This is what is going to make me better. Second, I’ve embraced cancer. I figure I can’t change the fact that I have it. The most I can do is make the best of the situation. And so, I’ve embraced four powerful mantras that have helped me — and will continue to help me — fight through this battle.

1. Embrace Your New Normal

Up until a few weeks ago, my “normal” was being a working mom. Now, my new “normal” is being a working mom with cancer. In this new normal, I’ve had to figure out what the big rocks are. The big rocks are the things that are my responsibility, things that I choose to do well and keep on doing well. I choose to:

  • Care for my kids and keep them healthy, happy and safe.
  • Continue to run my business.
  • Keep myself healthy so I can get better.  

It’s my responsibility to manage my life so that I have enough mental and physical energy to tend to these big rocks. How? By giving myself permission to let go of everything else that isn’t a big rock.

2. Offload and Delegate

There are only 24 hours in each day. Now that I have a new normal that’s suckier than the old normal, I have different big rocks that I choose to tend to than before. So, the only way to keep sane now is to offload and delegate as much as possible. Sure, this is going to be tough, but it’s a key secret to balancing it all. I opened a Google doc and wrote down all the stuff I did each week: laundry, cook, clean, exercise, work, family time, dinner with friends. And then I went through one item at a time and figured out how to decrease the amount of time I spend on each. People in your life will want to help, so let them. Delegate to your kids, your spouse, your co-workers. Delegate by letting stuff go. Now’s not the time to treat all things equally. It’s OK to identify the least important to do’s on your schedule and simply not do them.

3. Feel Lucky

People say “Be positive. A positive attitude is key to recovery.” I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before. I do like this bit of advice, but I personally believe the true secret to getting through this isn’t forcing myself to feeling positive 100 percent of the time. Instead, the secret is: Feel Lucky. Why? Every cancer patient needs to allow themselves time to feel truly and utterly down in the dumps. Now, I’m not saying you should stay in bed all day and mope. But what I am saying is that it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be angry, mad at the world. It’s OK to be negative. Take the time you need to grieve. And then, move on with your day. How? Figure out what you live for. What do you love? What’s your passion? Why are you the luckiest person in the world? I’m lucky because I truly love my life:

  • I have the best husband and kids in the world.
  • I love my job. My team is my rock, they are the best group I’ve ever worked with and they inspire me.
  • My cancer has an 85 percent cure rate.
  • I’m healthy and have tons of energy.

Focus on the things in your life that you love and are lucky to have. And, allow yourself to feel whatever range of emotions you’d like, including both negative and positive ones.

4. Embrace Your 50,000 Coaches

In the movie Akeelah and the Bee,  Akeelah is an 11-year-old competing in the Spelling Bee. At a critical turning point in her studying, she comes to realize that everyone around her wants her to succeed, and they each have their own way they can help her. She realizes she doesn’t have one coach, but in fact has 50,000 coaches. Take advantage of each bit of advice every single person in your life has to offer. Be explicit about what you seek to learn. I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what your 50,000 coaches have to offer you.   My journey through breast cancer, working as a CEO in tech, and raising my kids is only just beginning. I feel strong, and I feel confident that these four strategies to stay strong have already helped and will continue to be my guide. I’d love to hear what secrets others have used to balance work, kids, cancer. If you have any tried-and-true tips, please share.


About the guest blogger: Debbie Madden has built five companies from the ground up and has been CEO of three of them. As CEO of Stride, Debbie brings 20 years of tech leadership, and a daily passion for helping businesses improve through software. Due to her reputation as a passionate woman executive in technology, Debbie is a sought after speaker and writer, having appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fox TV, Huffington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, InfoQ and more. Follow her on Twitter at @debbiemadden200.