Fit for business: Coping with illness

  • 02 Jun 2020

Despite our attempts to stay fit and well, there are times when illness strikes. Here, Dr Sheri Jacobson, Founder & CEO of Harley Therapy, shares her own experience of running a business while undergoing treatment for cancer

At 43 years old, feeling physically and emotionally fit, I discovered a pea-sized lump. After noticing it getting larger over the course of a month, I got it checked at a walk-in clinic, and received a diagnosis of early-stage invasive breast cancer. 

I had none of the conventional markers that would suggest a susceptibility to cancer (no family history, and I was a non-smoker who ate a good diet and got plenty of exercise). It was a total shock, after living a ‘healthy’ life! But it is said that the number of people who will develop cancer in their lifetime is nudging up to one in two. It can strike people at any age, even those in good health. 


As my new reality sank in, I was able to take some practical steps forward, including adjustments to work. From my experience, here 
are some ways to continue running a business while contending with 
an unexpected and possibly prolonged health condition. 

1. Rally the team

Work colleagues were one of the first groups of people I informed about my diagnosis, because they would be most affected on a daily basis, and were also likely to have anxieties about the changes it might bring. I found it helpful to give them plenty of detail about the nature of the treatment and how long it was expected to take. 

In my case I initially needed surgery to remove the tumour and 12 consecutive weeks of chemotherapy. I set expectations quite low, that I would likely be out of action for that time, but I would join in our meetings if and when I was able to. 

2 Listen to and respect your body

Your physical and mental health is a priority. I have had my tearful moments (and emptied my therapist’s tissue box!), but largely my spirits have been high. I credit this to having prioritised wellbeing all along; food, sleep, exercise and support systems have made this possible. 


Some days I don’t feel well, either with pain, fatigue or both. At those times I let the team know I’m going through a rough patch. On some days I’ve taken video calls from bed, on some days I’ve taken them at the hospital while on chemo IV, and on other days I’ve felt the need to park work and just rest.

3 Embrace your desire to work

If, like most business owners, you are passionate about your work and it contributes to your wellbeing, then involve yourself where feasible and not detrimental to your recovery. My therapist commented that with this condition I would likely have the urge to have some control in my life, and that being able to work might be meaningful. 

He was absolutely right. Although I did enjoy resting, reading, walks, podcasts and TV, I missed being involved at work, which always energises me – so I dipped back in as soon as I felt up to it. Remote working, using Zoom and Slack as communication tools, has made this possible. 

4 Get plenty of support

Dealing with an illness can upend your whole schedule. While your body and your routine undergo change, the consistency of solid support can make a real difference. This includes help from friends, family, fellow workers and even a professional therapist. 

I believe that having caring people around you helps you cope better than if you tried to face it alone. Even if you don’t take them up on offers of help, the very fact that they have you in mind can be comforting. I have been taken aback at how even very busy people have made themselves available to assist, and have been immensely grateful for the gestures.

5 Succession plan

Think about what will happen if you step back for a period, or if the worst happens and you pass away. Ask key people if they are willing to step in while you have time off. You could put these details in writing for someone privy to the business (advisers, solicitor) to keep hold of if there is a sudden need. 


It’s also worth including a note in your letter of wishes along with your will, outlining what you would like to happen to your business in the event of your death. In my case I feel that my company is making a contribution to the community – with more than 4,000 therapy sessions taking place each month – and I want it to outlive me. My instructions outline details of members of the team who I believe can oversee its continuation if things take a turn. This leaves me free to resume life and work and enjoy the ride! 


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