Getting cancer is devastating, and for CEOs it can feel impossible to think about their future, let alone the future of their business, when they receive a cancer diagnosis.

But with the number of new cancer cases in the U.S. projected to rise from 1.7 million in 2017 to 2.3 million in 2030, according to the American Association for Cancer Research’s 2017 Cancer Progress Report, top executives need to be prepared for the possibility that they — or one of their key players — may face this health challenge.

Maryland, in particular, has an above-average rate of cancer. The number of new cases reached 442 per 100,000 population in 2014, which was higher than the national average of about 429, according to the Maryland Department of Health 2017 Cigarette Restitution Fund Cancer Report.

When Ivan Misner, Ph.D., chairman and former CEO of BNI.com, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012, he blogged openly about his experience and challenges. SmartCEO caught up with Misner whom CNN calls, the “Father of Modern Networking” to talk about how he handled his diagnosis and what CEOs can do if they are battling a health issue.

SmartCEO: When you were first diagnosed, how did you decide to tell your employees and clients? How did you break the news to them?

MISNER: It only took a few days for me to wrap my head around the diagnosis, create a rough strategy as to how I was going to address it and create a rough plan on how and when I would disclose this information.

After my family and close friends, I sat down with my “direct reports’” and told them (just a few days after the diagnosis). I worked with my communication team to flesh out a simple strategy for distribution of the announcement. As a result of this plan, we made the announcement in this order:

  • Members of top management were told individually by me later that same day after I told my direct reports.
  • The entire staff was told the following day in a group meeting.
  •  I called key franchisees and associates the day after the staff.
  •  I emailed all BNI franchisees later on the same day that I called key franchisees.
  •  I made a public announcement on my Facebook page the day after I sent out the email to franchisees.

The total time it took from telling my direct reports to making a public statement was roughly four days.

SmartCEO: How did they react to the news?

MISNER: Incredibly, amazingly, unbelievably supportive! I told them I’d be transparent with the process and that I would put regular updates on my blog. I promised to tell them that I’d share the progress honestly with everyone.

SmartCEO: Were you still able to run your company during treatment, or did you need to hire an interim CEO?

MISNER: I did not hire anyone to help run the business during this time. My team stepped up to the plate very well.

SmartCEO: At the end of the day, how did your illness impact your company’s bottom line?

MISNER: It did have an impact. We grew. We added almost 16,000 new clients (members of BNI) during this time.

SmartCEO: What advice would you give to CEOs who are diagnosed with cancer?

MISNER: My first piece of advice would be: You are the captain of your own health. Make a choice that works for you. Not me, not someone else, but you. That said, for me, I believed that transparency was the best approach for two reasons. First, people almost always find out. I’ve seen so many individuals try to hide a health problem and it almost always gets out and then the person has lost any control at managing the message. For me, I wanted to manage the message. It was important to be honest and calming to my organization. In order to do that, I had to communicate what was going on.

The second reason that I think transparency is good is that when people know you have an illness and they know you have a plan, they are much more forgiving than demanding. My organization gave me the grace to deal with my health because I was honest with them throughout the process. I don’t know if this would work for everyone however, I’d recommend that everyone give this approach serious consideration.

SmartCEO: What advice would you give CEOs who have a key player – maybe a vice president – who is diagnosed with cancer?

MISNER: I would share with them my experience with being transparent. I hope that the person with cancer would be willing to be open with the organization. I am humbled by how my organization supported me and gave me the time to deal with my treatments. They were very accepting when I had other team members handle matters that I would normally handle and they greatly backed off on controversial issues while I was healing.

SmartCEO: What surprised you the most about living with cancer or running a business with cancer? What’s a common misconception people have?

MISNER: The biggest surprise for me – hands down – is that I am actually grateful for some of the lessons I learned going through this process. I heard people say this before and I thought it was bunk! However, having lived through it, I am in a healthier place than I have been in 30 years.

From a business perspective, I am surprised at how people that I seemed to have constant battles with backed off and were much more reasonable to work with. They gave me space and didn’t look for battles over their petty issues. Lastly, my team rose to the occasion and filled the gaps. Trusting them to step up helped me dramatically during this time.

 SmartCEO: Any last thoughts?

MISNER: I see many executives who don’t share a health issue and it only leads to frustration to everyone around them. Several times, I was aware of someone who was dealing with cancer who didn’t want to tell their team or anyone who worked for them. Almost everyone around them were confused because the quality of the person’s work went down. They felt the person’s attention was elsewhere and they were incredibly frustrated with the individual. If only the person was honest and told them what was going on, I believe their team would have rallied around them to support them instead of being frustrated and getting angry – only to find out much later that the boss was withholding this critical piece of information.