By CHARLES DE BRABANT[Updated: Feb 1, 2018]
Editor’s note: For those who have asked us about Charles since we first published his story on Leaderonomics.com on Oct 27, 2017, here is how he is doing. We’re really glad he is in good spirits, and we wish him (and your good selves) the best of health, always!
Ps: Do you know World Cancer Day takes place every year on Feb 4? It is an initiative under which the entire world can unite together in the fight against the global cancer epidemic. #WorldCancerDay #WeCanICan
A new beginning…
It is amazing to think that a little over one year ago on Dec 31, 2016, I finished my last chemotherapy treatment. What a difference 12 months make. At the time, I was feeling awful, pumped up with who-knows-what, 10kg lighter, no hair and wondering what was going to happen to me, to us – Elisabeth, my wife, and I.
I now find myself on a freezing cold evening looking out my office on the 6th floor on the Bronfman Building at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. I have found the perfect opportunity as executive director of the Bensadoun School of Retail Management, which will officially be launched in the autumn of 2018.
This opportunity has brought me back home next door to my parents, many other family members and not so far from both our children. I have to say that it was time to come home. It just feels so right.
On the health front, I feel for the most part better than I have in years and as many people have told me, look better too. I get to bike or walk to work every day, which is a real privilege. I do keep on getting stressed out every time I see the oncologist and do the relevant CT (computed tomography) scans and blood tests. One of my cancer markers is still a little off the norm, but so far, so good.
In the meantime, I have discovered a real passion for cooking and still religiously watch the Montreal Canadiens, who are unfortunately playing pretty mediocre hockey at the moment.
I feel so fortunate to have ended up in a place and a situation that I would not even have dreamt of. ‘Luck’ certainly played its part, but I certainly tried to do the right things to make it happen.
Now my goal for 2018 and beyond is to find peace and serenity in my life. I realise that even with all the positives that have happened, I am still not completely there. That is my new quest…
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A survival story
My cancer came back in Oct 2016.
The first one happened in May 2015, and it was like a walk in the park on a cloudy day. I was diagnosed on a Wednesday, operated on Saturday and back at work the following Wednesday with active surveillance as follow-up. In short, a little blip in a very healthy life.
The second time was a more profound life-changing experience. The treatment was brutal with 26 days of chemotherapy over 68 days from Oct 24–Dec 31, 2016. It felt like I was living in a hellish, chemotherapy-infused cocoon. My family and I thought that the page would turn on Jan 1, 2017. It was not so simple as the results were not ideal. After a couple of months of uncertainty and stress, the latest results from my tests have cleared me, putting me on active surveillance and allowing me to come back to the land of the living. It felt fantastic!
However, so many things have changed. I am a cancer survivor as I now come under active surveillance for the foreseeable future with a chance of recurrence. I have left my last position as chief human resources officer of Asean’s fastest growing premium and luxury retailer.
With our youngest daughter Chiara graduating from high school in June, my wife Elisabeth and I are completely mobile to envision the future. Roots, family, friends and places have become ever more present. I finally know that I need to find new opportunities with meaning around my passion, namely people development, executive education and teaching in strongly-branded organisations.
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From the start of my treatment until I got the green light to live normally again, I wrote a journal of events and feelings that I shared with family and friends. I can only tell you with hindsight that it was an essential way for me to cope and better understand what was happening to me. By sharing the journal, it forced me not only to delve on the negativity of the experience, but also to share positive moments and important life lessons I’ve learnt along the way. I cannot thank enough those who read through the journal and supported me through this life-changing ordeal.
It is now probably a good time for me to stop this journal, but before I do, I would like to share my 11 life lessons battling this disease. It is my hope that they may be useful to others who may, unfortunately, have to embark on a similar journey.
1. Find your own coping mechanisms.
Cancer treatment is a war that takes place within your body and mind where the enemy and the saviour are the same – chemotherapy. To cope, you need to find your own means to keep going. While it is important to listen to others, especially cancer survivors, doctors and nurses, ultimately, the battle is still yours to fight on.
In my case, I wanted to know about my cancer just enough to make thoughtful decisions. I was not looking for the world’s best cancer facility, but a reputable one that was close to home and my family. Reading became an obsession, as did watching the Montreal Canadiens hockey games.
2. Find your own mindset.
I was often pushed to be the perpetual optimist, to look at how others had suffered more than me. It never actually worked for me. Dwelling in negativity and slipping into depression are certainly not the desired mindset either.
Fortunately, I was able to deal with it by having an optimistically realistic approach to my fate. With cancer, I ended up many times on the wrong side of the statistics. So had I been too optimistic at every step, I believe that it would have left me shattered. By being realistic, it allowed me to cope with the negative and fight on. It taught me how to be more reflective when some piece of good news came my way. It’s always great to have won small battles, but don’t get too confident until the big war is won.
3. Trying times for you, and those who share your daily life.
This is a moment in life where everything just shifted, not only for you but also for those dearest to you, especially your spouse and children. You became totally dependent on them. It required important adjustments for all.
After years of being at the pink of health, the sudden change to being at home or the hospital created a sense of helplessness. It was not only tough on me, but it demanded a lot of courage and resilience from Elisabeth and Chiara.
4. Build a community of support.
I don’t believe anyone can go through this ordeal alone, at least not healthily. So find that community in family, friends, doctors, nurses and acquaintances. Their physical and emotional support will make all the difference.
5. Find a way to share what is happening.
It is not enough to have people supporting you; you need an avenue to talk it out. It seems that this comes more easily for women than for men. It is for one of these reasons that Sofia Davis founded an association called “One for the Boys” in 2013 to get men with cancer to talk more openly about what they were going through, with actor Samuel L Jackson as its ambassador.
Watch this video:
In my case, the journal helps greatly.
6. The importance of second (or subsequent) opinions.
Gather advice from different people, preferably from different places. This is especially true when critical decisions need to be made. It reassured me to know that all the doctors in Malaysia and Canada whom we had consulted shared the same diagnosis and treatment protocol.
More recently, it potentially saved me from possibly unnecessary cycles of chemotherapy and operations. This is thanks to a visit to my urologist who suggested that I meet a testicular cancer specialist at the National Cancer Centre of Singapore. The specialist recommended, with the support of the world’s leading testicular cancer expert in Norway, to stop all further treatment if my scan was clear and my blood sample test was okay; which turned out to be the case.
7. Lovely things happen in trying times.
Despite the ordeal, I am so thankful for many things. It brought our family closer together. Back in September, as a young adult, Chiara was growing more distant and independent as is the case for most people her age. But with the recurrence of my cancer, she realised the importance of family, and that brought us much closer before she furthered her studies.
I realised how unsupportive I was when Elisabeth had cancer 15 years ago. I finally apologised to her as it was something that had lingered in her heart for years.
We spent Christmas as it was intended to be spent – a special moment of love and care, instead of fighting and waiting only to open presents.
The experience also brought me closer to many friends, families and acquaintances. The messages of support were heartwarming and profoundly impactful to my wellbeing.
8. Exercise to stay as strong as you can.
You will lose weight and energy. In many cases, you will experience hair loss, although that quickly becomes secondary if you are a man.
In between chemotherapy sessions, work to stay healthy and exercise. It is essential to speed up your recovery, especially for your mental wellbeing. Small steps will do and as my doctor told me, your body will tell you fast enough when it cannot go on anymore.
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I can say that by working at it, I was just about back to normal after 2.5 months. And in three to four months, I should be fitter and healthier than ever.
9. Beware of the financial consequences.
In some cases, with less brutal treatment and more understanding bosses, you may be able to manage your state of mind better. But in other cases, you may have to stop working for months, forcing you to leave your current employment. You may also want to completely reassess your life and take a more fulfilling and healthier path. You probably need 6–12 months of financial security to make it through. Thanks to Elisabeth, we were fortunate enough to have something sold, and that has given us some of that security.
One wonderful story of support in financially trying times was told by former vice president Joe Biden regarding former president Barack Obama. When Beau Biden, Joe’s eldest son, was diagnosed with a brain tumour, Joe was unable to continue working as attorney-general of Delaware and as a result, no longer had enough money to support his family. Joe was ready to sell his family home outside Wilmington to help his son and told the president about it. Given what Joe had been through in losing his first wife and young daughter in a car accident years before and bringing up the rest of the family in that house, the president told him that he would never allow him to sell it and would give all the money that was necessary to help him and his family through the ordeal. Such was the gesture of friendship and support from the top leader in the world.
10. Have a do-able dream and live it.
In the movie Bucket List, terminally-ill cancer patient Carter Chamber (played by Morgan Freeman) had a bucket list of places he wanted to visit and things he wanted to do but did not have the means to. Together with another cancer patient Edward Cole (played by Jack Nicholson), they both lived it. It was very special for both men, especially for Edward who until that time was a bitter and intensely disliked person despite his sharp business acumen, wealth and power. It brought out in him humanity, generous spirit and the joy of life he never had before.
In my case, it was a trip to the places that I love and visits to people that I hold dear. On my 35-day journey, I travelled to Paris, Montreal, Stowe Vermont, New York, Verbier in the Swiss Alps and Ile d’Yeu off the West Coast of France. For me, it was the most powerful journey that I have ever undertaken.
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Its power came at so many levels:
- The importance of rituals.
Until the trip began, I did not understand the importance of rituals in our lives. I lived so much throughout this trip that it is now filled with memories, scents, sceneries, sounds and intense moments of friendship that have made life special and worthwhile.
- The power of relationships.
In each place that I visited, I felt like I saw everyone that I hold dear and shared at least one special moment with each of them.
- A disbelief at some of the things that I was able to do.
A heli ski day off Petit Combin in Verbier, a full run on the Cote Sauvage – the first since my chemo finished – and swimming on Easter Monday in freezing cold water in the Anse des Fontaines on Ile d’Yeu.
- An affirmation of what I want to do next.
Strongly recommended by my father, I organised 20–25 meetings/interviews with headhunters, business schools, friends, and new acquaintances. These meetings may lead to one potential offer that I would seriously consider. More importantly, I know that my future lies in people development, teaching and executive education. On where and the details of the next role(s), only the future will tell.
- A rebirth.
On Easter Sunday, I went to my favourite place in the world, la Chapelle de la Meule in Ile d’Yeu. I had the entire place to myself for 30 minutes as the sun rises that morning.
For the first time since my cancer reappeared, I prayed for my late mother-in-law (who passed away on Easter Sunday and whose presence I felt intensely), my wife, our kids, our family, our loved ones and friends. Coincidentally, Easter is also a story of rebirth as I felt reborn and ready for the next step in our lives.
11. Life will never be the same, but do not give up on it. Press reset and live it to the fullest.
This type of journey, no matter how painful, will change the way you look at life. Sometimes, you need trying moments like these to take hold of what had happened and to re-evaluate your life’s priorities. You may not be able to do everything you aspire to do, but hopefully, you will be able to get closer to what you want in life.
I personally would have loved to take a year off. After an exhilarating 10 years in Shanghai, the three years in Malaysia have proven to be the most challenging in my professional life, and as a direct consequence, for my health. A year off would have been great to regain my health, enjoy life and prepare better for the future. However, our financial situation has not allowed me to take a full year. Nevertheless, I am making the most of it with the amazing trip and the additional 2–3 months to organise the future.
Bringing it all together
It is probably time to spend less time in Asia and more in North America and Europe. The sooner the better, but we need to be realistic about that. Our time in Asia has been an enriching ride, but it is now time to get closer to our roots and our friends. It will also allow Elisabeth and I to be closer to our children.
On a professional front, I am focused on finding new opportunities with meaning around my passion. Will I get there right away, I’m not sure, but I hope so. I will work hard to find the right opportunities.
In conclusion, I hope to make significant strides towards my ideal situation. In the meantime, I will embrace life and do as many things that I enjoy as possible. It is a life worth living to the fullest.