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  • Jennifer Owen-O'Quill

Words on Life and Illness

In the midst of the global, national and local news I have some personal news to share.

I am stepping away from my practice for several weeks for medical care. No, it is not COVID-19. In January, 2020 I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. In April and May I will undergo treatment for this illness.

I will miss being available to all of you at a moment’s notice during the coming weeks. This is clearly a time when leaders need an outside thinking partner’s perspective as you navigate critical and consequential decisions.

To that end, my colleague and Voltage CEO, Jeff Smith, is taking on my client load during April and May.

Our able Client Engagement Specialist, Erin Love, and our Program Manager, Diane Nguyen, are available to help you schedule time on Jeff’s calendar for 1:1 or team coaching, and to help as you navigate change and crisis management. Let Voltage help while you continue working on shaping a successful business strategy so that your organization can re-shape itself and move into the future with strength.

If you have an urgent need, Diane and Erin can be reached at and

If I am able to return earlier, I will, but for now it appears I will be away until June in order to not compromise my immune system as I recover.

Before I step away I wanted to share one last Blog Post with you. There are, after all, a couple of things I have learned as this personal crisis has now crossed paths with a global one.

Lesson #1:

Look for the bright spots. Give them your focused attention.

Reflect frequently on these experiences and retell the stories, so that they become strong, anchored memories.

In the past few weeks, where have the bright spots been in your life?

Has someone crossed paths with you and brought an unexpected blessing?

There have been a few hard moments since I was diagnosed: I cried with a colleague when I got off the phone with my doctor. But that afternoon as I drove home, I had this incredible sense of being awake and alive. I also began to notice a conflagration of happy coincidences:

The first phone call I made was to cancel a medical procedure I had scheduled. The doctor happened to answer the phone herself, and shared with me her search for surgeons and a treatment team for the same cancer. It was the right conversation at the right time, and her counsel has guided my care. Since then she has reached out to check on me, texting to see how I am doing. I am grateful the first call I made was to cancel that appointment.

On the heels of this there was the retired oncologist in the right place at the right time to talk me through options and new best practices. The friend sitting across from me when I learned the cancer spread to my lymph, and perhaps beyond. The talented radiologist, whose wife has survived breast cancer, working his last shift before retiring, on hand to perform the needle aspiration of my thyroid.

Choosing to notice the way I am being cared for by others, and to appreciate the help that is being sent my direction has brought me a lot of peace and reassurance. With this said, it is also important to practice:

Lesson #2:

Take time to grieve and acknowledge your losses.

Then focus your attention on what you are doing to contribute to the Greater Good.

In these times it should be becoming clear that life is not about us. We need each other now more than ever, even if we have to stay 6 feet away. Allow this new, global reality to slow you down and show you the trouble and trauma so many other people are facing. Pay attention to the suffering and needs of others, even as we have our own growing needs. In this way we can be compassionate with one another as we move through this time. Perhaps, just perhaps, the world can be more whole, interconnected, and safer on the other side of this experience.

All around us are struggles: job loss, marital strife, couples canceling weddings, parents anxiously awaiting the birth of their first (or 5th) child; and the graduating Seniors, after so many years of hard work, losing the joyful milestone moments of final performances, assemblies, Prom and Graduation.

For me, one of the hardest days since I learned of my diagnosis was when I learned that no one would be able to be with me in the hospital. My second surgery will be inpatient for 2 nights. I will be alone.

It took me a moment to digest this news and shift my thinking when I learned that I would be required to be alone in the hospital for my surgeries. I felt so scared and sad and lonely in advance. Not having my husband by my side as advocate and caregiver was gutting really. We will miss an intimate moment as a couple that I will never get back.

Over time, as I drew my mind to the reality of the whole situation, I allowed myself to begin to appreciate and feel relieved that I was going to have a 50% less chance of being exposed to COVID because the hospital would have no visitors. Everyone, especially our medical staff, will have fewer people to be exposed to. It started to feel like something I could do to help them and the other patients stay safe. It started to feel like something that was protecting me. My sense of loss began to shrink and my sense of purpose began to grow.

The same thing is true for my caregiving plans at home. I had 3 friends, who are a plane ride away, offer to come and spend time with me. I had planned to ask one of them to come and spend a week. But I can’t ask any of them to get on a plane and risk getting sick … so no Lisa or Janien or Stacey.

I do not do Facebook really. I post 2-5 times a year in recent years. But when I composed the FB post about my diagnosis and treatment plan, I included the fact that I would be alone and shared that I was upset and scared about that.

People have really risen to the occasion with that post.

One of my friend’s adult son is going to stream a FB live concert with his girlfriend to me while I am recovering in the hospital. He was a red-headed 3-year-old 18 years ago when I was called as Senior Minister to the church his family attended. He was the one who played with the microphone cord when I would share the Children’s Message in worship. I am going to treasure that concert.

People are being creative and wonderful. Which brings me to my final points:

1. Share how you are feeling with someone. If you have a trusted friend, great. But this is also a time we can share more deeply with someone new, and potentially build a new friendship. Deeper relationships are borne of hard times.

2. Let people help you. Allow people to care. When we help each other, we become stronger through our vulnerability, and our friendships become real, deep and enduring.

I saw right away when I was diagnosed that this would change me.

It is also clear that this pandemic will change us all.

We get to decide how. Each of us individually, and our various societies and groups collectively. Will we hoard or help? Attack or collaborate? Withdraw or reach out? Reconnect with our surroundings and the beautiful world we share, or obsess over online news, retract into technology, or alcohol, or bitterness?

When I was diagnosed I decided 1 thing: I was going to end this diagnosis with new close friends. I have not had a personal crisis since I moved to Roanoke 6 years ago, and so I need to ask new people for help and support. I need to risk being vulnerable. Taking that risk invites people into my life in a new way.

As I do this, my friendships here can become “Velveteen Rabbit”[i] ones. They will be real friends, because they will have been tested. I need to lean on people to help me and our family through all of this.

So as you go through the remaining days, weeks, maybe months of this coronavirus pandemic, allow people to care for you. Allow someone new into your circle.

Share what you are scared about.

Share the fresh joy of having time to notice the explosion of spring in your front yard, because you are never leaving your house and so, for once, you can pay close attention.

Share your Cabin Fever Crazy Self with someone.

Share your hopes and fears, dreams, desires.

Confess your disappointments and what you wished you’d done differently.

You might be surprised by the outpouring of love and compassion that comes your way.

We can do this pandemic thing well by working together to serve our common humanity, reaching out to people near and far with kindness and compassion, and expressing our gratitude for the ways so many people are sacrificing to keep us safe and well.

Feel free to reach out to me by email at to share a message of encouragement or update me on how you are doing. I won’t be able to respond until I return, but I will treasure those messages in the meantime!

[i] The Velveteen Rabbit is a wonderful book by Margery Williams about a treasured stuffed toy who becomes both worn out and real through the long love of a child.

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