Jenny Taaffe, lessons from my cancer diagnosis: ‘I am going to enjoy every second of my life from now on’

Jenny Taaffe is a mother, an IMAGE businesswoman of the year winner, a best friend, a wife, a daughter, a sister. She founded and grew iZest Marketing to become the leading travel and retail digital marketing company in the country. In August, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her remarkable courage in the face of such adversity is inspiring (but not surprising considering her resilient, go-getting nature).  Here, Jenny tells Amanda Cassidy about some of the most important lessons she has learnt from her diagnosis 10 weeks ago...


"There are some dates that are etched into your mind forever. The 29th of August 2018 is one of those dates for me. At about 5.30pm that evening, the evening before my son started in Junior Infants, I got a devastating cancer diagnosis. From now on, there will always be a before the 29th of August and an after the 29th of August. But not in the way you might think.

When my consultant gave us my diagnosis, we were devastated but not shocked. What surprised me the most is that my brain moved instantly into the 'what's the plan, let's get on with the plan' mode. Less than an hour after my diagnosis, I had met my Oncologist (the man with the plan!) and 36 hours later I'd started chemotherapy. I had a diagnosis and a plan so quickly that it took a few days for my head to catch up. Now, 10 weeks later, I can look back with some perspective and see how we've navigated the last few weeks and got ourselves into a very happy and contented place.

I would even dare to say that I might be the most content I've ever been - which of course, makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.

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There are a few learnings I've gained from the last few weeks that I think can be relevant no matter the adversity; big, small, life-changing or not - that we face in life.

Honesty

For me, it was hugely important to be honest about my situation with everyone around me. In fact, I was so sure about the diagnosis that was coming, I'd spent the days before preparing close family and friends. I had to be straight up, not only with friends but with the mums in my children's school, clients and our team at iZest. I’m very upfront in general so dealing with this was going to be no different. This honesty from the start meant I had a huge amount of support (I could never have anticipated how important this would be in the first few weeks). By the time I started chemo, those endless messages of support carried me through. From some of the reading I’ve done,  I’ve learnt that the most important part of cancer treatment and recovery is having support around
you. I knew that if I wasn’t honest and upfront I would have deprived myself of this endless love and support.

Related: Businesswoman of the Year: A defiant, dazzling and gracious evening for Irish women

Perspective

I was lucky that I got perspective on my situation very quickly. I was able to turn an initial terminal diagnosis into “I have some time” and was able to plan lots of things that I’ve always wanted to do.

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When you originally think that you may not make it out of hospital at all, to being told that you’ll get home and to be feeling well after treatment, means that you are grateful for every minute and every day you have. I also looked at the other positive -  I had time to plan things and make decisions with my husband. I am very aware that this is not something that everyone gets.

Comfort in numbers

There is comfort in numbers - and finding those you can relate to. Finding those who are going through a similar situation to you can be really comforting. I've had several people my age contact me who are also going through treatment. They all say the same thing, "I've connected with you as I'm going through treatment too and it's comforting to know that you are a mum like me."

For me, the person I can relate to is Nicola Mendleson. I don't know Nicola personally but she is the COO of Facebook. I've followed her career for several years. I read about her cancer diagnosis earlier this summer and was shocked and saddened to hear that she had cancer. Then one morning, as I was starting chemo, a picture of her sitting in the same kind of chair in London popped up on my Facebook page and I felt weirdly comforted and encouraged that someone I looked up to so much was in a similar situation to me. She is facing her treatment with honesty and grace.

Related: Advice for life from our Lifetime Achievement Award winner Anne Harris

What is this teaching you?

I believe that all adversity is here to teach us something. For me, it was definitely to slow down and appreciate life in a different way, at a different pace. I was always 'so busy', racing here and racing there. My life in the past 10 weeks has been hugely enjoyable. I’ve been able to step out of work to focus on my treatment and all that goes with it, which has allowed me time to meet with friends and have the best chats imaginable. Meeting someone for breakfast is now my favourite thing to do!

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One of my friends who sat with me during 3 hours of my last chemo said it was like being back in school or college, to get uninterrupted time to chat with a friend. Everyone around me is making time for me, but also for themselves and other friendships.

My ‘news’ gave everyone close to me a real jolt and has forced them to reevaluate what is important in life.

The reaction

When you are facing a big challenge or upheaval in your life, like this, how you react to it, is the reaction you are going to get back from others. So if you are falling to pieces, and unable to cope, it’s likely that those around you will take your lead and follow suit. If you face it with humour, confidence and honesty you’ll see that reflected back to you too.

So when faced with adversity, stand back and think about your approach to it. I decided early on that I was going to enjoy every second of my life from now on. I decided that if I was feeling well I would get up and out and do as much as I could to enjoy every day.

I started writing lists of things I wanted to do, and places I wanted to go to. I involved friends in this and we are having a good laugh planning my 'bucket list' items.

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Related: And the winners of the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year 2018 are...

Those around you

Who have you got around you? If you are a positive person you need to avoid negative, overly emotional people who will drain you during your adversity. I've chosen to only meet up with positive people who are on the same page as me regarding my illness. I can't be around people who call cancer negative names or who show anger towards it. This is what has surprised me most about the world of cancer (and trust me, it is literally a whole other world).

For me, I treasure the words of encouragement and people telling me that I’m
doing well and giving them inspiration in other parts of their lives. When you are faced with adversity, smothering yourself in positivity will only help, and having those cards/texts/messages to refer back to on the dark days is hugely powerful for your mind.

A fresh perspective on life is no harm for anyone to get. I certainly got mine on the 29th of August, during my 40th year. 2018 has been such a pivotal year on my life, not my worst year and not a year that I’m willing to be over just yet. It has brought so many positives into my life – and I’m lucky to say that this list of positives keeps growing every day. So when your next adversity hits, you need to decide, will you be the victim or the survivor no matter what the circumstances? I know where I stand."

A big thank you to Jenny for opening up to us so bravely about her illness, and huge congratulations too for winning the IMAGE Digital & Technical Businesswoman of the Year Award on Monday evening for her work on iZest Marketing.

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