My Unexpected Rise to CEO: Lessons Learned and Miracles Earned

By Nancy Cranford

I immediately thought, “Can I do this? I’m not ready for this.  I’m too young.” I was always a strong confident woman, but the thought of this scared me to death. Life was great like it was. My husband and I had jobs we loved, a six year old boy about to enter first grade, a house with a large backyard, and a family dog. Everything seemed perfect.

Each year, as we approach July 4th, I remember the fireworks that changed my family’s life forever. Just before the July 4th holiday, our “perfect” life quickly spun out of control. My husband, a Veteran and just 42 years old, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in both lungs due to Agent Orange exposure while serving his country in Vietnam. I remember vividly the doctor telling us to get our affairs in order, as my husband only had a 5% chance of living nine more months. My family truly had a difficult journey ahead, and our choices over the next year could mean life or death for my husband. After lots of tears, we began our journey, and learned some powerful lessons along the way. Little did I know this unexpected journey, and the lessons I learned as a result of it, would earn me my CEO title.

Get Your Team on Board

I knew if there was a 5% chance of living that someone had lived. My husband and I decided he would be one of the 5%. We got a will, our “affairs in order,” then found a doctor willing to help us fight for my husband’s life. We told the doctor we knew the odds, so going forward, we only wanted to discuss options that could lead to success or we would go somewhere else. The doctor saw we were serious, willing to “go for it,” and he got on board.

Now that I had the doctor on board, I needed to tell my son. I dreaded telling him, since he was only six, but quickly learned he would be a great partner. I took him to McDonald’s to tell him over a Happy Meal, since he thought Happy Meals made all troubles go away. I told him his daddy was really sick, would need to be in and out the hospital a lot, and all his hair would fall out from something called chemotherapy. My son just took my hand and asked me if daddy’s hair would grow back. I said it would. He said, “then mommy, it will all be ok.” He was definitely on board and proved to be a great partner.

What you Say is What you Get

I knew that positive talk, no matter how hard to do at times, could really make a difference. We surrounded ourselves with positive people. We lived our life as if my husband would always be around and discussed plans for the future in detail.  Even though money was tight, I bought him new clothes when he gained 30 pounds during chemo. He kept going to work, often only 1 hour a day, but felt good about how he looked and knew I believed in him. When he didn’t want to eat because he felt so sick, I arranged for his friends to take turns coming over to have lunch with him to make sure he ate. When he didn’t feel like getting out of bed, I started writing daily “toilet notes.” I knew he would have to get up at some point to go to the bathroom, and found he looked forward to finding the silly notes I left for him when he raised the toilet lid (ex: “You’re down to treatment 21, hang in there, you’re almost done” or “You’ll beat this thing I know you can, I know cause you’re my miracle man”). We have a strong faith, so we also knew the power of prayer. We got on everyone’s prayer list and were so fortunate to have so many caring prayer warriors.

You Gotta Believe

We always talked about our expectations of beating “the bad guy cells,” as my son called them. We also took steps to help us visualize and really believe in what we were saying. My husband played a video game daily full of blocks (his cells) named Columns where he visually destroyed the “bad guy” cells in his lungs. I drew a pair of clear lungs on the back of my husband’s business card and put it on the mirror so we could look at it daily. I realized I wasn’t a good artist when someone asked why we had a pair of droopy breasts on our mirror. My son told my husband daily he knew he would beat the bad guy cells and prayed every night for Dr. Zucchini to keep healing his daddy (he couldn’t say the doctor’s real name and I decided to let this one go). My son also got his classmates to draw pictures of happy things for his dad’s hospital room. What a joyful place it was to see the hospital walls covered with children’s pictures of angels, rainbows, and smiling faces. Nurses from all over the hospital came to see the “miracle man.”

Do Your Bucket List Now

What a shame we waited until my husband had a cancer diagnosis to do the things we talked about doing, but never got around to. In the year my husband went through treatment, we had the time of our life. We timed chemo and radiation treatments around our list. We are big baseball fans so we went to Spring training with the Atlanta Braves and flew to the Baseball Hall of Fame for Father’s Day. We even got to go to the World Series for the first time thanks to the Braves. And, of course we took our son to Disney World. We also went to the beach, airshows, and spent quality time with friends, family, and each other. One of the highlights of the year was when I flew in my husband’s Vietnam buddies for a reunion of sorts, something they had always wanted to do.

Miracles Can Happen

After a year of treatments, and enduring all the chemo and radiation one could tolerate, my husband’s once inoperable tumors shrank enough that the doctors could operate. They removed lobes on both sides of my husband’s lungs. He now requires oxygen, but he is still alive, and that is all that matters.

Since that diagnosis, I learned that the problems at work are not  really that big a deal. If they aren’t life or death problems, then we can handle them. My son learned the power of prayer and positive thinking while growing up, and still has a strong faith and positive outlook on life today. We learned to make the best of any situation. My son was happy his dad could still watch his baseball games, even if he couldn’t play baseball with him. I taught our son how to bat and he learned to be a switch hitter (I wasn’t sure if he batted left or right handed).

It was July 1992 when my husband was told he had a 5% chance of 9 months due to lung cancer. Twenty-five years later, as my husband spoke last week to a group of cancer survivors to fill them with hope, he told the crowd he was able to beat his cancer diagnosis with the help of a great CEO. I had no idea what he meant. He pointed to me in the crowd and said I was his CEO – his Chief Encouragement Officer. As tears filled my eyes, I was so happy that 25 years ago I found my inner strength, stepped up to the challenge, and got on board that wild unexpected journey that changed me and my family’s life forever.

I definitely believe in miracles, and that anyone can become a great CEO. I encourage you to become a Chief Encouragement Officer to someone that needs you today. Don’t wait for a crisis to do what can be life changing for someone else…. and for you.

Happy 25th Anniversary to my Miracle Man!! I’m looking forward to another year of Fourth of July Fireworks with you.

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