“Giving up work was the last thing I wanted to do when I was diagnosed with incurable cancer”

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Facebook’s vice president talks to Stylist about her life-changing diagnosis, and her insistence that her job remains a key part of her identity as she lives with the disease.

Nicola Mendelsohn is a woman with an impressive amount of power. So influential, and so formidable, in fact, that the British press dubbed her “the most powerful woman in the tech industry”, after she became Facebook’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa in 2013.

While she is no stranger to a challenge, or hard work, Mendelsohn’s life took a difficult turn in November 2016 when she was diagnosed with a rare and (currently) incurable blood cancer, follicular lymphoma.

After finding a pea-sized lump in her groin, she wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Nobody had ever told me you need to check for lumps [there], you’re taught as a woman, always check your breasts,” she tells Stylist, while being interviewed for the Nobody Told Me podcast, sponsored by Clinique. 

But she went to get herself examined – after speaking at a conference, no less – and the results were hard to hear. “The doctors told me: ‘The scan has shown that you’ve got tumours all up and down the inside of your body. I was just absolutely shocked. I remember it was like a physical thing in my stomach that almost pulled me in – we almost couldn’t comprehend what she was telling me.”

She describes the day her and her husband Jonathan Mendelsohn – a British lobbyist and Labour political organiser – sat down to tell her children about her condition as “one of the hardest moments of my life”. 

She told them that they could ask her anything, but as the years have gone by and she’s checked in with them – Mendelsohn has four children, three sons and one daughter, Danny, Sam, Zac and Gabi – they’ve found strength in her own resolve to get on with things and, above all, keep working. “They take their cues from me. They say, ‘You seem alright, Mum. You’re getting on with it, you’re working. So if you’re alright, we’re alright. And we’re here for you.”

When she realised that she wouldn’t necessarily need to undergo treatment straight away, Mendelsohn’s decision to continue with her work baffled many. Many suggested that she stayed home for a while. “Why would I do that? I love what I do – I thrive on it, I enjoy it, it gives me huge energy and satisfaction,” she says. “That would be the last thing I wanted to do.” Her career is a huge part of her identity, and she viewed the attempt to separate her ‘work self’ from the rest of her as “old fashioned”.

The next challenge was to be transparent with her work colleagues – some of whom she considers as friends – about her condition. This was crucial, due to the habit society has of expecting those in power to have inhuman levels of resilience. 

“People are vulnerable – [they] have good things happen, [and] have bad things happen,” she says. The pressure for people – particularly women – to “have it all nailed and perfect” is unhelpful to those in power, and those who aspire to be like them, she adds. Her role is to be the leader that takes the pressure off, by being open about what she’s going through.

Once the situation had progressed to the point where she needed immunotherapy and chemotherapy, Mendelsohn shocked people again when she stated her intention to continue working – from the clinic, no less. She would carry out work calls while receiving treatment, because “it created a bit of normalcy in what was quite an abnormal period”, even though many found this decision “nuts”. 

But she is not quick to underemphasise the toll that treatment took: “There were a few days in the month where I literally couldn’t do anything. I had an exhaustion – the likes of which I’ve never seen,” she says. “I physically couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t watch television – I just had to lie there and get through it.”

Six months of treatment later, and Mendelsohn was back in a relatively good place with the disease. But no research has yet found a way to tell when the cancer will grow again – no patterns have yet been found. It’s a case of waiting to see how things progress, which is nerve-wracking, to say the least. 

So, one year ago, she decided to set up a charity – The Follicular Lymphoma Foundation – to fundraise the mission of finding a cure. “This is a cancer that could and should be cured,” she says, adding that experts “can see pathways as to how that might happen”. She’s also found comfort in creating a community of people living with the disease, co-running a Facebook group of over 7,000 people from all over the world.

Finding strength in her work, and a “constant” in giving back to others, Mendelsohn has resolved to remain focussed on making the most of every moment that she has. “I make sure that I eke out every bit of joy that I can, [in] every single day that I’m lucky enough to be here.”

Images: Getty, Nicola Mendelsohn/Instagram

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