How I managed cancer while managing my business

Gillian Franklin, founder of the $75 million a year cosmetics company Heat Group, was told she had breast cancer a year ago. She talks to AMANDA GOME about how she has successfully come through the past year and what she has learnt about managing both a m

By Amanda Gome

Gillian Franklin Heat Group

In November 2007, Gillian Franklin, founder of successful cosmetic distribution and marketing company Heat Group, with revenue of $75 million, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While the business community was shocked, Franklin took an entirely different approach, deciding to include the management of cancer in her life and business.

Did it work? She explains what she learnt from managing her illness, including the physical and mental impact, while also managing a large business.

Audio To listen to the interview with Gillian Franklin, click here (interview length 20 minutes.)
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Amanda Gome: We talked to you in January this year about your plan to manage your business and your cancer, what you were planning to do, and many people read the story. Was your plan successful?

Gillian Franklin: It was very successful. I think the key to that was the way I communicated it to everybody involved. So I looked at all the people who were impacted, which was my family, and then my friends, my work, Heat Group and the boards that I sit on.

So I basically said, how am I going to impact each of these people, and what I wanted to do. I communicated it all to them in different forms and got their buy-in, so everyone understood what I wanted to achieve out of it – then they supported me, and so it worked.

That was a very logical decision to make at a time when you would have been in shock. How did you work around that? What was your thought process?

The most important thing for me when I was diagnosed was this is simply an inconvenience. I never for one minute allowed myself to think that it was anything other than that. And I think that strength, that mental and emotional strength, just underpinned everything that I did. So there were no tears and crying and stress and angst and concern about could I die, I never even allowed myself to think about that.

Where does that strength come from?

Probably just me, my background and how I was brought up. My whole philosophy in life is always about look at what you have rather than what you don’t have. Don’t ever say no, say ‘how do I deal with this?’ and these are philosophies that I adopt both personally and professionally and I am always optimistic. Everything that occurs to me in my life, I treat as a learning experience and I find positives in what ever I do.

So even with my cancer, the first thing I did was ask what are all the positives about my cancer? And I actually did a PowerPoint presentation to my staff to present the fact to them that I had been diagnosed with cancer and I listed it out, I said well these are all the good things about my cancer and focused on that because I think that can give you strength and give you energy, and all of those strategies worked for me.

How did you tell your board?

Same thing; I rang them up and said that I have been diagnosed with cancer and I don’t want anyone to panic, this is going to be my action plan. I said, I will not look sick, I will not act sick and therefore I will not be sick. That was very important to me.

So I made sure I looked exactly the same everyday. I just worked around the time required to go and have my appointments. Fortunately it was November, so I normally have a break over December-January, so having a medical appointment almost every single day for three weeks over December meant that I was on my annual leave and so it didn’t inconvenience my work.

It certainly took personal time, but we coped with that, and then even through the chemo and radiotherapy, the only days I missed were the actual days I went in to hospital to have the chemo, but the next day I was working.

Now you planned to have radiotherapy in the morning after school drop offs, have a powernap in the afternoon and then reschedule meetings for later. Did that work?

Having it in the morning worked, and I did actually in theory cross off my diary everyday from four o’clock onwards because my radiographer and oncologist had said to me that you will find the radiotherapy very tiring, because I had to have over 30 sessions.

So I had organised that each day from four, my diary would be clear so that if I wanted to go home and have a sleep I could. I never did once. So I failed miserably in the powernap, but I succeeded very possibly in not needing it.

I was working the same days; the only difference for me was that normally I would get home at seven, have dinner with my family, and then I would usually have done a couple of hours of extra reading or something at night, and that’s what I had to sacrifice. I just went to sleep. I never did any night time work for those six to seven weeks.

So after six to seven weeks, you were back on your normal schedule?

It took a couple of weeks after the last radiotherapy session for me to rebuild my energy and I would think that probably in the third or fourth week, after the radiotherapy, that I felt that I was absolutely back to normal, and started my gym work again and was able to go longer in the day, so I was able to go to 10.00, 10.30 at night as opposed to falling asleep at eight o’clock.

How many weeks over that whole period did it affect you, before you were back to normal?

I would have said about six to eight weeks at the most, when I lost my night-time capacity.

It’s very annoying when you have an illness because many people want you to slow down whether you want to or not. Did people do what you said or did you get the usual ‘oh you really must slow down’ and ‘it could have been stress’ and all the nonsense you hear?

They absolutely took on board what I told them…

…they must be scared of you…

…no, I hope that it’s out of respect, and also they could see that I was fine. A few times people said to me ‘oh you’re tired’, and ‘would you like to not do this?’ and I would say I am perfectly fine. I just said ‘look, it has got to be on my terms’ and there were situations where someone may have invited me to something and I said look I really don’t want to do that, I would rather go home and get some rest and people just understood.

I also said please don’t start compromising my relationship with you, whether it was friends or business, and don’t have this expectation that I am not going to be able to do things.

Let me make that decision, so, treat me as if nothing is wrong and then let me respond to you accordingly, depending on how I’m feeling on that day or what I have got planned for whatever the date or time is. And people did that.

What was the best part about having cancer?

This overwhelming love and support, that I found very humbling and very strengthening. I got cards and emails from people that I had not seen or spoken to, in some cases, for 10 years.

People had read about it in the media or heard about it on the grapevine in the industry, were just sending me cards and flowers and it was just overwhelming.

So I have kept everything. I have called it my “C journey” and I have a file and I have kept everything, and it really was a very enriching experience.

What was the worst part of it?

You know, it’s a really silly thing to say, but what I found difficult to deal with was the doctors don’t tell you everything up front. Other people I have talked to have said they’re sure it is a deliberate plan by the medical team, because if they sat you down and said ‘OK you have cancer, here are all the things that are going to happen to you’, people would just be overwhelmed and would really struggle to cope with it.

What I found was I had this drip feed of information. So the first thing is, you have to go for this injection, ‘oh and by the way you need another one, this one could hurt and yes, your hair will fall out and yes, you’ll get ulcers in your mouth and yes, your taste buds will change for the first week and everything will taste terrible’.

One day I noticed my toenails had gone black and I thought ‘what happened? I don’t remember bumping my foot or anything’ and then I mentioned it to someone and they said oh no, that’s the chemo, you can loose all your nails. So I just found that there was a progressive drip feed of information of how your body is going to be, how your body is going to react.

And I found that a bit annoying. I wanted to know everything upfront and be prepared for it and they said ‘Gillian, people don’t like that, they cope much better through drip feed’.

So that was one of the things. And then losing my two big toenails was really one of my biggest frustrations, because it just looks ugly when you have lost a toenail – now we are getting into summer they are starting to grow back again.

How did you cope with the other physical changes?

Everything else I coped with. I lost my hair, I wore a wig. I was able to wear makeup, I was able to do my own face. I lost all my eyelashes. They have grown back in a week, it was actually really convenient.

I had a couple of funny experiences because I didn’t wear the wig when I was at home; I would be hot, and uncomfortable, and in the morning I’d get up, get dressed, have breakfast, do my makeup and get organised and I’d be driving out the driveway and I’d think ‘what have I left behind, I’ve got my phone, got my laptop’, and then I would think ‘oh no my wig!’. I’d have to run back in, that happened on at least two or three occasions.

What ongoing affects have there been?

The hot flushes now are probably the hardest thing to deal with out of the whole experience because the chemo forced me into menopause. It is quite severe and I can’t take any of the normal drugs. In fact, the Tamoxifin that I am on they say exacerbates it even more.

I am now probably suffering with more broken sleep than I did through all of the treatment, and I have to do that for at least the next two years my oncologist has told me, so even though I am through all that treatment I am still having side effects, which are these very severe hot flushes through the night, and that is just a bit awkward.

When you started on this journey, did it go pretty much as you thought it would?

It probably went better than I thought because I sometimes look back and say ‘did I really have cancer?’. One of the things I need to bear in mind is that not everybody has the same experience as I do.

I was nowhere near as sick as I thought I would be. Even though I was so determined not to be sick, I expected to be nauseous. When I was diagnosed, I started thinking positive; one of my reactions was oh great, this is going to make me lose a few kilos.

But in fact it has the opposite because the drugs are steroids, and they are appetite stimulants and everyone puts on weight; you really get bloated. So that was one of the negatives. I expected, even with my attitude, that I would still be sick, you know in terms of feeling more nauseous and maybe even vomiting, and I never had any of that, so from a physical point of view, I coped much better than I anticipated.

I am now mentoring a couple of other people who are going through cancer, and I don’t want to give them that false expectation. Because what I have learnt is it is quite rare; the way I was able to deal with it was rare.

I have set a false expectation for some of the women and they’ve called me, three and four days after their chemotherapy, and said I am so sick I cannot get out of bed, and I’ve had to say, don’t feel like a failure, everyone responds differently and you’re OK, you’ll be fine. I had this sort of fairytale image of everyone going through it the way I was able to, and that doesn’t happen.

You found a good oncologist from the start and got good medication… what it that or how your body has coped with it?

I think it is all those things, I think it is both physical and mental on how you just deal with it. You just have bear in mind that people are different. But yes, I have a brilliant medical team, so you get a great relationship with them because it goes on for a long time. And you’ve got both your breast surgeon, plus your oncologist and your physiotherapist.

Because I’ve had two-thirds of my lymph glands removed in my arm, that has now given me some inconvenience for the rest of my life. When I travel overseas, I have to wear a compression bandage from fingertips to my armpit and when I’m doing my gardening, I have to wear long gloves and protect my arm because I can’t get mosquito bites, or sunburn or rose thorns in my arm, and I can’t do my push ups on my toes, because you can’t have that weight. But I can gradually build up, so I have been doing them on my knees and getting slowly back into it, and I am hoping that I can get completely back. Each little thing you just deal with as it occurs and move on from it.

What advice have you got for women or anyone who has a major illness and has to get up and go to work every morning?

I think you’ve got to do what you want to do. That is what is important, and ask people to respect that, so if you are not coping and you feel ill then that’s OK. I don’t think people should beat themselves up about how they are responding to any treatment.

The other thing I think is when you have a bad day, have a really bad day… you know, one of these women that I have been talking to said ‘I feel like crying’ and I said well, have a great cry. Have a really good sob, get it completely out of your system, because you will feel so refreshed afterwards, don’t hold it back and feel like you shouldn’t be crying. If you want to have a cry, have a good one. And if you feel tired, go and have a really good sleep.

So I think you have just got to do what you feel like doing, both physically and emotionally. That allows you to cope and be more comfortable and surround yourself with people who respect that; that’s important.

How did you cope with everyone asking you about your illness?

It can be very draining talking about it all the time. Especially if you have a big network, people genuinely care and they want to know, and it is exhausting if every time you meet someone it’s ‘how are you’, and you’ve got to repeat the story.

So what I did, is I set up a communication where I created, almost a database, of all the people who were interested in how I was doing, and one my friends actually called it team Gillian, so that was the email name.

So every couple of weeks I would type up a full story of where I was at, how I was feeling, and I would send it to everyone. Then when I met them, it was a much shorter and more personal conversation rather than 15 minutes of where I am at with all the treatment. I think that really helped me too, because you can’t believe how tiring it is having to tell the same story 20 times over.

You’re a distributor of brands which include Cover Girl, Max Factor, Red Earth, Elite, Ulta3 and Bourjois, and people have shut their purses. What is happening in your business and what is your outlook?

The first thing for me is that this presents opportunities, and I suppose it is the same philosophy when I had cancer. What are all the good things we can do with this?

From our perspective, I will never allow people to just put their head in the sand and say it is all doom and gloom. I say, put your head up and look for the opportunities.

For us it is about operational excellence because you’ve got to fight harder for every single dollar now. Women are always going to buy cosmetics; what we need to do is make sure they are buying ours. Make sure we are in stock in stores, the stands are beautiful, we’ve got good promotional offers, review the kind of offers we’re doing, so we can have offers that represent really good value for women.

I think women are less inclined to take risks now, so focus on favourite products that people know and go out there and make sure that when she does spend that she is spending it on your brands. And I think that this is a time when you can take market share.

What do you think of the general economy? Do you think we have had black Friday and we are out the other side even though it might be a bumpy ride? What is your view?

I think that what Rudd has done is given people a sense of confidence. The question now will be how it really impacts their lives because I do expect there to be significant job losses. I don’t think we have seen anywhere near the start of what is going to happen from an economic point of view, so I reckon the next 12 to 18 months we are going to continue to struggle with people’s day-to-day earnings, and therefore their spend.

So all the things that are talked about job losses resulting in less consumer products being purchased, housing prices going down, I do think that is what is going to happen. What we need to do as business people is say, well we are not actually shutting the door and saying everybody go live on another planet, life goes on and business goes on, so participate actively, and work hard and be focused and make sure you get a higher return for your business than your competitors.


This week is also national breast cancer week. For more information, or to make a donation, visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation website.




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