Why I Left Corporate America to Design Silver Linings
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
It was May 17, 1995 when I created this artistic rendition of “Every cloud has its silver lining.” I was a middle-schooler at the time, with self-esteem higher than justified by my school photos in those days. Little did I know then that I would pursue the corporate rat race for the next 24 years, only to have life’s curveballs bring me full circle to a mission of designing silver linings.
In the years that followed middle school, I went on to excel in speech and debate and business clubs in high school, meet President Clinton in the White House as an elected Girls Nation U.S. Senator, major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) while serving as Student Body Vice President, intern on Wall Street, earn my MBA from Harvard Business School, lead teams advising Fortune 500 companies and private equity firms as a management consultant for Bain & Company, transfer to Delhi to help start Bain’s first consulting office in India, and serve as a senior executive for a consumer technology start-up, all while continuing my lifelong love of Indian dance. I was deep in the corporate rat race with no sign of relinquishing.
Curveball #1 - A Diagnosis
That commitment to pursuing an unknown finish line began to falter in 2014. I was 38 weeks pregnant when I felt the lump. I remember lying in the examination room waiting for an ultrasound of the baby when I felt the pea-sized mass. The OBGYN believed it was most likely just a clogged milk duct. After all, I was only 31 years old and pregnant. However, given I had a mutation in my BRCA1 gene that gave me an >80% risk of developing breast cancer in my lifetime, she agreed I should have the lump examined. My water broke two days later and my second daughter was born 2 weeks early. Unable to walk following my c-section, my husband wheeled me from the NICU to the breast clinic for an ultrasound and biopsy. Even then, the breast surgeon expressed that the mass was likely a clogged milk duct — nothing to worry about. Days later, on my newborn’s 1-week birthday, I got the call saying “the lump is malignant after all.”
I had an aggressive, Stage 2 triple negative breast cancer and would need chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and breast reconstruction. I immediately went into warrior mode, focusing on what needed to be done. I knew everything would be OK - it had to be - any other outcome was simply unimaginable. I had two daughters to raise and a life goals list that was nowhere near complete.
Still limping from my c-section, I began a series of doctor’s appointments that would result in 10 rounds of chemotherapy, hair loss, 2 surgeries, and 4 blood transfusions in the 6 months that followed. There were many times throughout that journey that I was consumed by all the uncertainty and I cried uncontrollably. Overall, however, my response to that hardship was consistent with who I had always been - someone who chooses to be happy and strives to make the best of a situation. I recall going to a temple the day before my first chemotherapy treatment and contemplating the irony of requesting strength and support from the same “God” that gave me cancer to begin with. Instead of being angry, I chose to shift my perspective and recognize that, if this diagnosis were inevitable, then at least I have so much to be thankful for in regards to my ability to face it. I chose to have faith, and prayed for the strength to maintain my positivity.
Throughout my treatment, I sought opportunities for self-empowerment. When my hair began falling out, I shaved it all off, so it would be a choice that I made rather than something happening to me. When I realized others could learn from my hardship, I documented my journey real-time in a raw, candid blog titled “New Job. New Baby. New Cancer.”
In this blog, I summarized my learnings from the pre-treatment phase, and wrote:
“Stay positive and be thankful. Step back and identify the silver linings in your story. Recognize what you have to be thankful for, what you have to fight for, and ultimately, what you have to live for.”
I was surrounded with love throughout my diagnosis and treatment. My husband was my rock, my parents our saviors, and family and friends offered priceless support. I learned a lot about life during this time - including what really matters and how to be there for others. I had always believed in silver linings, but I hadn’t foreseen the ones I would end up creating.
Silver Lining #1 - Restoring My Father’s Hearing
The first silver lining was restoring my father’s hearing. He had experienced a continual decline in his hearing for the previous ~30 years such that he was near-deaf by the time of my diagnosis. He was unable to talk on the phone or hear his grandchildren, and barely able to understand us in-person even with the help of an amplifier. I cannot imagine how frustrating it must have been for a man who loves a good debate to struggle with partaking in a group conversation, to smile and nod when everyone’s laughing to appear like he’s understanding. When my first daughter was born and my dad would carry her around singing Hickory Dickory Dock, I remember thinking how nice it must be for him to be able to talk to someone without expectation of being heard in return.
After multiple consults with ENT specialists over the years, the doctors always reinforced his original diagnosis and declared there was still nothing that could be done for it. Once I was diagnosed, I was fortunate to have access to a medical consultancy through my husband’s employer. Recognizing the unique access we had to this service, I inquired about recommendations for ENT specialists. They connected us with The Silverstein Institute in Florida, whom we otherwise would have never come across. Dr. Silverstein was willing to do a remote consult, and after reviewing my father’s latest audiology reports and CT scans, shared that “I can’t be sure until I’m in your father’s ear, but I think he’s been misdiagnosed for the past 30 years. What he actually has is otosclerosis that can be treated by a one-hour outpatient surgery.” We felt a mixture of emotions - elated at the possibility of hope and somber with the realization of how different life could have been for my dad had we known this earlier. Ultimately though, I couldn’t help but feel that there were greater forces at work and perhaps the purpose behind my diagnosis was the possibility of restoring my dad’s hearing. After my initial surgeries were complete, I flew with my parents to Florida for my dad’s ear surgery. The misdiagnosis was confirmed and Dr. Silverstein was able to restore my father’s hearing.
My dad heard himself laugh for the first time in years. His life, my mom’s life, and our entire family dynamic has been forever changed for the better. This silver lining even had a further ripple effect. A few months after my dad’s hearing was restored, he was able to fly to India to care for his mother who had been newly diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget receiving the text from my dad saying “Feeling blessed: able to have lots of long conversations with mummy.” She passed away two months later.
Silver Lining #2 - A New Mission
Despite having two more surgeries to go, I returned to work from my maternity-turned-medical leave 6 months after diagnosis. After ensuring that consumer technology start-up was set for its next phase of growth, I knew it was time for me to pursue a role at a mission-driven organization that I could be more passionate about. I didn’t know what that was until I came across an article referring to a growth-stage start-up’s mission of “democratizing access to genetic testing for hereditary cancers.” Sometimes you seek out a mission, and sometimes a mission finds you. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else at that point, and soon after joined that health-tech company.
For almost two years, I put my heart and soul into a role that I thought was my "ikigai", a Japanese concept meaning "a reason for being." It is the intersection of what you're good at, what you love doing, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. My personal and professional lives melded into one as I shared my family’s personal experience with genetic testing and cancer at healthcare conferences and employer on-sites, and on social media and webinars, to educate others about the importance of the company’s services.
Silver Lining #3 - Saving My Mom’s Life
I had been the first in my family to get genetic testing. Even though my mother had early onset breast cancer in her 30s, she had never been offered testing. It was only when I got free access to genetic testing for friends and family as an employee benefit from the healthcare start-up I had joined, that my mother got tested and confirmed she has a BRCA1 mutation as well. I spent the following year giving my parents powerpoint presentations on the resulting high ovarian cancer risk, the inefficacy of existing screening methods, and the benefits of prophylactic removal of my mom’s tubes and ovaries. Despite feeling that the surgery was unnecessary as she felt completely healthy, she finally agreed to undergo the procedure last summer. That decision turned out to be critical. Following what seemed like a successful preventive surgery, we learned that the biopsy of the removed organs indicated cancer was already growing in the fallopian tubes. Given ovarian cancer is found at an advanced stage in ~80% of cases, it was miraculous that we had caught it at Stage 1 while it was still treatable. The tumor was so aggressive, that had we waited even 3 months later, it would have been spread all over her belly. Though my mother still needed to undergo further surgery and chemotherapy, her prognosis is as optimistic as it could be and these sequence of events no doubt saved her life.
Curveball #2 - A Career Break
While I couldn’t have been more passionate about the company’s mission and forever thankful for the role the company played in my mom’s health, I was launched into an unexpected career break as the start-up restructured due to a strategic pivot. While I understood the business rationale, honestly, I was devastated. So much of my identity had been wrapped up in that job. Where do you go after you've been working somewhere you thought was your “ikigai?” The bar is quite high.
I found myself unsure of how to move forward; uncertain, for the first time in a long time, what I even wanted from the future. Recognizing it was a luxury that I even had this choice, I intentionally took months off to focus on family and self, and make space for the needed introspection. I found myself in an identity crisis. I'd always thought that I'd be a working mother in the traditional corporate world, but I realized how happy I was being able to be more present with my family and friends. I was thankful for all the special moments - picking up my daughters from school and hearing about why they had a "good day" or a "sad day", having a leisurely lunch with girlfriends, hosting friends for home cooked meals, reading a book, or going on extended family vacations, and was reminded that these are the important moments of life.
As I met with various companies, I struggled to articulate what role would inspire me enough to make the trade-off with the beautiful moments I was being able to live day to day. Perhaps my bar was too high because I had convinced myself that I had already found and lost my ikigai. Perhaps I was jaded because I put my everything into a role that disappeared so suddenly, and I was left wondering "what was the point?" Perhaps I was still in my introspection process. Regardless, I found myself wanting something different.
Silver Lining #4 - Finding Clarity
As I shared my anxiety of the unknown with a dear friend, he advised me to “wait for the bells to ring.” In hindsight, the forced career break was a blessing. It provided me the opportunity to not only be present, but to also reflect on what’s important to me and what impact I want to have on the world. I only recently realized that the answer had been right in front of me.
Over the past few years, I shared my personal story through, not just my cancer blog, but also films on survivorship and mindset, TV and radio segments, podcast interviews, numerous public speaking engagements, and more. These projects had always been something on the side. It was only after speaking at the grand opening of the new Stanford Hospital recently, that I remembered how much I love connecting with and inspiring an audience. I realized I was ready to combine my skills as a dancer and businesswoman with the inspiration I experienced as a mother and a warrior, and channel them into a mission of being a storyteller - building a platform to share my learnings and inspire others to design their own silver linings.
The bells are ringing loud and clear.
Designing Silver Linings
My cancer journey helped me recognize my strength and resilience. It was not just the positivity with which I faced my diagnosis and treatment, but it was my ability to remain thankful for what I did have. It was my willingness to look beyond myself and my own suffering and identify opportunities from which something good could come if I could just tap into them. Blogging my cancer experience has since helped thousands of people across ~80 countries. Taking the initiative to inquire about ENT specialists restored my dad’s hearing. Getting my mom access to genetic testing and convincing her to pursue preventive surgery saved her life. I wouldn’t be creating a platform and sharing this story with you today if I hadn’t thought about how to turn a forced career break into something of meaning. My hardships didn’t just result in good things on their own - these silver linings were created by the decisions I made during the darkest of times.
The dark clouds in our life may be inevitable, but with the right mindset and approach to life, we can create our own silver linings. While my curveballs and silver linings are my life experience to date and the inspiration for my mission, they can appear in a variety of shapes and sizes for others. The benefits of intentionally shifting your mindset to focus on what you can be thankful for, what you can control, and how you choose to respond to it and move forward is applicable in even day-to-day situations. Going forward, I aim to build upon my platform of sharing my personal story and learnings through speaking engagements and writing, by featuring other peoples' stories of resilience, educating how to develop a positive and thankful mindset, and inspiring people to find meaning out of their own hardships.
Chemotherapy may age the body, but I believe such hardships also mature the mind. Many people don’t realize until their 50s what is most important to them and what impact they want to have on the world. I’m thankful for having this realization in my 30s and for being able to pursue my mission and the legacy I want to leave behind.
P.S. Do you, or someone you know, have a story of hardship and resilience that they were eventually able to find meaning out of and move forward from? An example of a day-to-day moment where you were able to make the best of a difficult situation by shifting your mindset? Please share stories, big or small, with me via this submission form.
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Mother. Warrior. Storyteller.
Parul is a speaker and storyteller on a mission to inspire others to design their own silver linings. Following a breast cancer diagnosis in her early 30s when she was a young working mother, Parul has committed to being a champion of health and patient advocacy and the power of a positive mindset, while also helping others share their own stories of resilience. She has shared her personal story through a blog that's been read in ~80 countries, films on survivorship and mindset, TV and radio segments, podcast interviews, numerous public speaking engagements, and more. Recently, she was a featured speaker at the grand opening celebration of the new $2B Stanford Hospital. Parul can speak on topics ranging from health/wellness, patient advocacy, caregiving, genetic testing, cancer, and healthcare provider education to motivational speeches related to positive mindsets, resilience, and finding meaning out of hardships to living an authentic life, pursuing your passion, women in leadership, career breaks, and more. More information about her mission, story, and portfolio of work can be found at http://www.parulsomani.com.
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