Hmmm…where to start? I am a wife, mom, sister, entrepreneur, and believer in being true to yourself. I like to lightheartedly refer to myself as a recovered Chartered Accountant and Breast Cancer Champion. As a side note, I prefer cancer champion to survivor. It’s not a perfect term but it’s the best I have come across so far. After working for more than 20 years as an accountant in various roles from an auditor at a big public accounting firm to a VP Finance with a privately-owned IT training company, I stepped away to go through treatment for breast cancer. It was during this time that I did a lot of soul searching and looked at the way I was living my life. I came to the conclusion that I did not want to continue down the same career path. I had always felt like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. I made it work but it took a lot of effort and not in an uplifting and empowering kind of way. I felt like I was not living the true me, not honouring my true values. I decided once I got through treatment and recovery, I would go back to my job on a part-time basis with the intention of looking for what I wanted to do next. It took me two years to work up the nerve, the mental, emotional and financial stability, to leave my job and start coKANna Designs. coKANna is a line of bamboo knit, Canadian-made wellness wear for women. It is designed to be soft and comfortable to wear, easy to slip on and off, and look good on; and to give back to the community that helped me through my cancer experience.
Who inspires you in your life and why?
There are so many people who inspire me. Top of my list is my daughter who makes my heart sing and drives me crazy at the same time. She is spirited, determined, active, independent, and wise beyond her years or so she thinks. She is the reason I am pursuing my creative dream. She inspires me to be true to myself and in doing so, I hope I inspire her to follow her dreams.
I am inspired by the women I meet who have been diagnosed with cancer; their strength, courage, compassion, and determination. It shows up in different ways but I see it in all of them. In coming up with new designs, I always keep in mind the many women who have touched my heart.
And finally, I am inspired by other small business owners/entrepreneurs. They pave the way for those of us who want to bring our creative and entrepreneurial spirit to life. I am grateful for their willingness to make mistakes and get back up, and then share their successes and failures; and their cooperative and collaborative mindset in sharing resources, connections, and information.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your life?
Of course, going through breast cancer has been one of my biggest challenges so far. But out of all challenging circumstances comes something good, something positive, something that helps us grow, even if we don’t see it at the time. If I had not been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, I might still be mindlessly drudging through my professional life as an accountant. In looking back, I have to wonder if trying to make myself fit in for so many years had something to do with me getting sick in the first place. I would never call cancer a blessing in disguise but it did get my attention and was the impetus for change.
For years, my husband and I tried to have a baby. One time we conceived, only to have a miscarriage eleven weeks later. We kept trying but it was not in our future. Now, I look back and cannot imagine life without our daughter, Maddi. We brought this little bundle of energy home from China in 2005 when she was 15 months old. I believe, with all my heart, that this was how we were meant to form our family, that she was always meant to be our daughter.
What did you do to move through them? What did you learn?
Once the shock of the cancer diagnosis subsided, my husband and I went into research mode. What could I do, alongside the conventional treatments of chemo, surgery, and radiation, that would help me get through this? Thankfully, there are many great resources, organizations, people here in Ottawa that can help you along the way such as the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, and Haley Rehab to name just a few. This helped to lessen the fear and worry. I began doing integrative therapies like acupuncture and naturopathic medicine, as well as yoga, massage and physiotherapy. This helped me gain back some control over my life when everything seemed so out of control.
We learned to ask family, friends and neighbours for help…meals, chores, rides, playdates, a shoulder to cry on, you name it…and they rose to the occasion and found many creative and thoughtful ways to help. It was very humbling and motivated me to get through treatment and get better.
As serendipity would have it, the author of the book, “What About My Kids? A Guide for Parents Living with Breast Cancer” and coordinator of the breast cancer support group, Stepping Stones, just happened to be our adoption practitioner from 5 years earlier when we adopted Maddi. This was a huge source of comfort for us as she knew our family intimately and provided great insight and support for us. I think of her as our cancer advocate who was instrumental in connecting us with the right resources and helping us through our journey.
Which brings me to how I moved from the sorrow of a miscarriage and not being able to carry a biological baby to the absolute joy of holding our daughter in our arms for the first time in Chongqing, China. The problem was not being able to get pregnant. It was being able to stay pregnant. I was determined to prove the doctors wrong. But how long do you put your life on hold? It was my husband who first suggested adoption. I was not ready to go there. I could not even think about it until I had gone through all the stages of grief for the loss of our baby and the loss of a body able to carry a fetus to term. When I was ready, I started to research the adoption process. Bam…again not ready…having an adoption practitioner come into our home, our lives and examine us, how we live, whether or not we were fit to be parents, was too much to bear. Then I slowly got over that and we started looking into it more, going to information seminars, talking to other adoptive parents, reading articles and books. I slowly got there and after 18 months (a very short period of time in the adoption world), we had Maddi Fu Zhen in our arms.
As with any challenging event that comes along, it takes time to work through the messiness of it all, the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual side of things. There is no timeline, no schedule, everyone goes through it at their own pace, and if we are lucky, with the help of others along the way.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of taking that leap of faith, jumping off that solid and sturdy professional accountant cliff and free falling into the unknown, the uncertainty of starting my own business. There I have found my wings. It took a long time to sprout them and get them moving. And there are many days where I am frantically flapping around trying to stay airborne. But then, every now and again, I feel like I am soaring for at least a little while until I hit an air pocket and get thrown off course. But the good thing is I know I have wings. It will not be smooth sailing and calm winds all the time or even most of the time, but I can fly.
What do you want younger women to know?
Not to worry so much about what others think or what other people are doing. It’s so hard to do when you are young and ambitious. It’s hard not to compare. But try to listen to your heart, find your core values and stick to them as much as you can in all areas of your life. Follow your dreams and be true to yourself along the way.
Oh and put money into an RRSP as soon as you start working, even if it’s only $25 per paycheque.
What does living fully mean to you?
Living fully means stepping out of your comfort zone. Trying new and different things and learning to fail. Then you reassess, make new decisions, and try again. As long as you are taking action, you are not stuck, you are moving forward. It’s the practice of practising that makes us better, more accomplished. And if you love the process, then that is the reward in and of itself, no matter the end result.
There are many quotes that resonate with me. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” ~ Nora Roberts