Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm
Linda Kiedrowski is accustomed to being in control. As president and owner of The Paranet Group Inc., a networking association for CEOs and top-level managers of manufacturing companies, she’s in the driver’s seat, leading her members though lengthy conversations, seminars and idea-exchange forums.
And as a business owner, she’s used to making decisions that affect her employees and the members of her organization.
However, Kiedrowski suddenly lost that sense of control in May 2003, when she was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
Her tumultuous journey through diagnosis and treatment would last more than one year, and Kiedrowski had to relinquish control of her business and much of her life.
“Control is ripped out of your hands,” she said. “It’s a horrible place for an entrepreneur. But the more you give up (while you are sick), the better off you’ll be.”
Today, Kiedrowski is back, steering her business to new levels of success, largely because of the diligent work of her health care professionals, her husband Michael Kiedrowski and her employees at The Paranet Group.
“I’m back. And I’m better,” Kiedrowski said.
Kiedrowski’s cancer story began one morning she was looking in the mirror, raised her left arm and saw that something wasn’t right.
“I looked at the left side of my left breast and there’s this indentation,” she said. “I felt around for a lump, but there was nothing.”
As a precaution, Kiedrowski called one of her closest friends, M. Kristin Thorsen, a radiologist at Waukesha Memorial Hospital.
The next few weeks were a blur of unpleasant activities – biopsies, meetings with surgeons and her oncologist, and making the many different decisions about the level of care and treatment Kiedrowski would need. Kiedrowski had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and chemotherapy was scheduled.
“The medical network you get tied into is critical to your well-being,” she said. “Thank God for Kristin (Thorsen) and (Dr.) Paul (LeMarbe, her oncologist). They made me feel OK.”
The reassurance allowed Kiedrowski to focus on her business. Despite her illness, Kiedrowski was well enough to hold networking sessions, informational seminars and continue in the day-to-day operations of The Paranet Group during the first months of her treatment, including her first bout of chemotherapy.
Although the treatments made her nauseous and physically exhausted and caused most of her hair to fall out, Kiedrowski continued to work.
“As a business owner, I had to concentrate on my life, but also take care of my business,” she said. “The health care people understood that. When I would come for chemotherapy, I would take my laptop. These were three-hour sessions, and (work) was a great distraction during these sessions.”
Being up-front about her illness with both her employees and clients was necessary from the early phases of her journey, Kiedrowski said.
“Because my business is relationships, I know my members, and they know me,” she said. “I told my members that this would be a little bump in the road. I chose to be open and let them know what was going on … because if I was proactive, that way, their fear would go down. I knew that if I wasn’t proactive and communicated, that fear would set in and people would be afraid to talk to me.”
Kiedrowski used her regular meetings with members as a chance to update them on her condition.
“I’d tell them that I was on these chemo meds, and if they see me sweating to death or if I break off a sentence, they should help me finish it,” Kiedrowski said. “I’d start the conversation that way. When you take that proactive approach to it, people feel that they can ask you questions.”
Kiedrowski’s first round of chemotherapy was done by late summer 2003. She and her husband, with her physician’s guidance, decided a second round of chemotherapy was needed to completely rid her body of cancer. The second round would subject her to one treatment per week over a 12-week period to be completed at the end of November 2003.
Instead of hair loss, nausea and fatigue, the side effect from this chemotherapy was pain. The treatment gave her small pains in her back or sometimes her stomach.
“During that last session, the pain got so bad that I was curled into a fetal position,” Kiedrowski said. “The pain was unbelievable.”
“It started with a stomach ache and then it was like she was getting kicked in the back with a boot,” her husband recalled. “(The doctors) couldn’t believe the amount of pain she was in. They’d never seen it that late in treatment.”
Health care workers brought in morphine, which helped temporarily. But from November 2003 to February 2004, Kiedrowski was largely confined to her home because of her pain and the side effects of her medications.
She was given strong narcotics, but they didn’t always work. On some days, Kiedrowski could only sit on her couch, rock back and forth and wait for her husband or her sister, Beth, to give her more pills.
Her ability to work diminished greatly.
“It was depressing, because I wanted this to be done,” she said. “I wanted to be normal – to be me again.”
When Kiedrowski was first diagnosed, there was not a clear contingency plan for The Paranet Group. However, between her husband, Paranet senior group director Joe Meloy and director of operations Jane Kimball, the company was able to keep its doors open and its groups functioning during her absence.
“I had to rely on Mike, Joe and Jane to keep the business going,” she said. “They did a wonderful job of maintaining things.”
Kiedrowski said the most difficult part of her cancer fight wasn’t the physical pain.
“I wasn’t worried about dying,” she said. “I was worried about not being involved in my business. It was the feeling of being out of control. Most business owners are high-control people. When you have to let others do things for you, it’s hard to do.”
By late February 2004, her pain had subsided. She was off of the pain medications, and her head was clear. And she was ready to go back to work.
“My system was weak, though,” Kiedrowski said. “It was so frustrating, because I always wanted to do more than I could. It was a very gradual upward thing. You have to be patient – and other people have to be patient. You want to be fine, and they want you to be (fine) too. It does get better. I’m better now than I ever was.”
About two and one-half years since her diagnosis, Kiedrowski recently completed the final phase of her recovery.
Months after chemotherapy, most patients’ hair grows back. However, after more than two years of waiting, Kiedrowski’s hair did not return.
A few weeks ago, she met with a specialist who helps women who have lost their hair. Her new hair is not a wig. It is a system of real hair that is firmly attached to her scalp, allowing her to shower and style it as if it was her own.
And it’s made a world of difference.
“It’s like a little weight has been lifted,” she said. “I can be me again. I’m a big redhead. That’s me. They kind of made a miracle happen. I left a different person. I came home, and my husband looked at me and said, ‘Linda’s back.’”
Kiedrowski said her bout with breast cancer has brought profound changes to her life and a different perspective.
“Everybody says they appreciate each day more, and I tell people while you still feel that, to act on it,” she said. “I now prioritize better and make more time for me. I try to keep my Monday mornings sacred. That’s a little meditation period for me.”
Kiedrowski’s identity is tied to her business, and she said it can be difficult to know when to step back.
“As a business owner, you’re working all the time,” she said. “You have to push yourself to turn that off. You can get addicted to your job. I love my company, what I do, the people who work for me and my members. It’s easy to do too much.”
Since she has returned to work, growth has resumed at The Paranet Group. In 2005, the company gained 20 percent more members. Through this November, the firm added 32 percent more.
In 2005 and 2006, Kiedrowski hired four new group directors, and she’s planning to hire two more in 2007.
And SYATI, the leadership development arm of The Paranet Group, has developed from a practice area to a new business. In 2005, Kiedrowski hired Rose Meagher, executive director of SYATI. Next year, Kiedrowski is planning to add several full-time employees to SYATI to assist Meagher.
Her illness also prompted Kiedrowski, with the help of her staff, to create a contingency plan in case she’s ever required to be away for another long period of time. That plan clearly states which employees are responsible for which business functions and which decisions they need to make.
The plan also establishes a clear line of communication between Kiedrowski or her family and her employees.
“The more you can communicate what is going on, the more that fear will go away,” she said. “You’ve got to take your employees with you, so they don’t feel fearful.”