Being a cancer advocate is a profession that carries a lot of heavy emotional labor, especially when you’re personally invested in it. Having had the experience of caring for her younger sister until the latter succumbed to liver cancer, the fight against cancer is a personal one for Andrea Wilson Woods, so much so that she is up to her elbows running a two-pronged war against cancer through her nonprofit, Blue Faery: The Adrienne Wilson Liver Cancer Association and her for-profit health technology company, Cancer University. At the same time, she is actively promoting her award-winning bestselling memoir, Better of Bald. How does she stay in peak mental, physical and emotional shape in the middle of this flurry of activity? Listen in as she shares some of her self-care routines with Melanie Parish on the podcast.
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I am here with Andrea Wilson Woods, who's a writer who loves to tell stories and a patient advocate who founded the nonprofit, Blue Faery: The Adrienne Wilson Liver Cancer Association. She is the CEO and Cofounder of Cancer University, a for-profit, social benefit, digital health company. With Cancer U, Andrea synergizes her talents of coaching, writing, teaching and advocacy. For years, Andrea worked in the education field as a teacher and professor for public and private schools, as well as universities. Andrea obtained her Master's degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California. Her nonfiction writing has won national awards.
Andrea, I am excited to have you on my show.
Thank you for having me, Melanie.
I always love to talk with leaders about what they're up to in their work. What are you up to in your world?
I am the Founder and President of Blue Faery: The Adrienne Wilson Liver Cancer Association. That's my nonprofit. I'm the CEO and Cofounder of Cancer University. That's a for-profit health tech startup. My medical memoir, Better Off Bald: A Life in 147 Days was published. That is the story of raising my sister, Adrienne and losing her to liver cancer in 147 days.
You've been out on the circuit, marketing your book, talking to people and sharing your story. What can you tell us about your book?
My book is about a time in my life when I raised my sister. When I was 22 years old, I was living in Los Angeles. I had graduated from college and I ended up getting custody of my then eight-year-old sister, Adrienne. I was her only parent and her legal guardian. I raised Adrienne all through my twenties and that’s the best experience of my life. I can still get choked up about it. One month after Adrienne’s fifteenth birthday, as she was finishing her first year of high school, she was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. It is unexpected. The day before she was fine and then that day, which we call day one, an ER doctor told us that she had tumors in her liver and lungs.
My book is about that time, but it also covers the seven years that I spent raising Adrienne. The book itself is written like a journal. Day one is chapter one. The reason I wrote it like a journal is because I kept a medical journal while I was with Adrienne on that cancer journey, but also she was a writer too. She had started journal before she got sick and kept writing in it while she was sick. By day three, every single chapter is introduced with her point of view and what she thought was going on. You’ll get the patient journey from this young teenager's point of view, but you also get the caregiver journey from my point of view. That's been the best feedback I've gotten from people who've read the book is how much they enjoy the structure. It's a very fast read and you're getting these two different points of view throughout the entire story.
I'm struck by the power of you publishing her journal and giving her voice as you created this book. It's powerful.
Thank you. A lot of people asked me why I wrote the book, I want people to know her and her story. She was such an amazing kid. During this cancer journey, I probably asked myself every single day, “Why her?” She never said, “Why me?” She had courage, dignity, humor and grace.
You were so young yourself. How do you think this experience shaped your life?
I didn't realize how young I was. That was probably a blessing. It has certainly shaped my life. I didn't have children of my own. Raising her, I didn't have any desire to have children my own because I feel like I raised the most amazing kid ever. After she died, I changed the whole course of my life. When I was raising Adrienne, I was a teacher to be on her schedule, but I was also pursuing an acting career, and none of that mattered anymore. A year after she died is when I started the nonprofit dedicated to cancer that killed her. It changed everything.
I'm curious about your for-profit endeavor, Cancer University. Can you tell us more about that? I see that it's a digital health company. I'm curious about what that means.
Cancer U is an online membership platform for cancer patients and caregivers to educate, empower and engage them to become advocates for themselves during their cancer care to improve outcomes for those patients, but also to reduce healthcare costs. While the end-users of the platform are the patients and the caregivers, our actual customers are pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies and providers. It is a health tech startup. It's still a fairly new company. We were about to launch a pilot program with a major NCI center in March 2020 and then COVID hit. We had a big delay with that, but we are moving forward. Up until this point, I've completely bootstrapped the company, we partnered with an amazing company in New York. We are raising a seed round of funding of a minimum of $1 million to move forward with what we're doing.
You are offering education to the clients of other organizations? I'm not sure I quite understand.
We are educating with courses, we're engaging with a community and we're empowering with coaching. We have three things that we offer. None of our competitors have this holistic platform that's designed like this online university. For example, if you or your loved ones are diagnosed with cancer, you would get your membership to Cancer U. It would come from in a perfect world, either your health insurance company or from your provider or you might be qualified for a scholarship.
We are giving it away in numerous ways for free. We never want anyone to have to pay for it. We don't want it to ever be what they call direct-to-consumer. We want to be able to provide it through another business, such as the health insurance company or the hospital or treatment center. We want to make sure everybody who is diagnosed, an organic caregiver is able to get access. The whole idea for it came to me because through my nonprofit, I have been coaching pro bono patients and caregivers for years. What I discovered is there's a lot of information out there. First of all, there's a lot of bad information, but even when people get good information. I know my nonprofit has the best accurate most up to date information on that particular cancer, but I was finding that patients and caregivers didn't know what to do next. It's not enough to give education. You have to teach people how to use it. That's where the coaching and also the community come in. It's critical that you have all three of those pieces.
This is such a valuable service. I lost my mom to cancer years ago and it felt like a cliff when we left the hospital. We had all these doctors, 24-hour nursing care, all of those things, and many doctors coming in to talk to her. She went home on hospice. We had that counsel or care, but finding information was difficult. I found myself googling and re-googling the same kinds of topics and not quite knowing how to find good information. Something like your programs would have been helpful.
I'm sorry for your loss with your mom. My hope is that people will feel supported immediately. I know with my sister, less than 48 hours after that ER doctor told us that she had tumors in her liver and lungs, I had to make major decisions about her treatment. I was an educated 28-year-old. I had grown up around hospitals and doctors because our mother was a nurse. I was fairly comfortable in that environment, but I was overwhelmed and I didn't know what to do. She didn't go back to school, not in person. I didn't go back to work. It was this whirlwind. It happened so fast and I want people to not be as overwhelmed and to know they have the support and to have it from the beginning.
Let's step away from a heavy topic. That brings me to a question I like to ask people on my show. This is a heavy topic. Your day-to-day has a lot of emotional labor in it. What do you do for yourself for self-care?
I do a number of things. I believe in the power of rituals and habits. The best and quickest way for me to get out of my head is to exercise. I do a lot of yoga. It doesn't necessarily have to be intense or anything. It can be stretching for twenty minutes. I try not to have too many expectations. It's more about getting out of my head, but I do a lot of self-care. I have a routine in the morning when I wake up. I drink a lot of water, have my coffee, I read and journal. I may or may not eat breakfast depending on whether I'm hungry or not. I give myself time in the morning. I do not believe in checking social media or checking email first thing in the morning. I find that highly distracting. It helps me get my day off to a good start. It’s the same thing in the evening. I have evening rituals too.
I also like to ask people about imposter syndrome. As a leader, I have had experience as a coach. It was one of the big surprises for me when I first started talking to leaders is that I found out many people experienced it. I imagine you as a founder, as someone who started doing things fairly early in your life, you might have had some experience with this at some point in your life that you might shed a little light for our audience. Is there anything you can reflect on around imposter syndrome and things that you or you've seen people do to get out of it?
I hate the words imposter syndrome. To me, we're often not as confident as we can be or need to be because we don't have experience yet in that particular skill or whatever it is we're trying to do. I try not to think about it as imposter syndrome so much as, “He lacked confidence.” “Why do you lack confidence?” It's often because I don't have enough knowledge or enough practice in a particular skill. I go out and get it. I would say about 80% of my technical skills, for example, are self-taught and that's simply because I wasn't comfortable and confident enough in doing something and I needed to figure it out quickly. Social media is a great example.
Years ago, I got a job as a social media manager and I had never been a social media manager before. I got this job on a fluke. At that moment, I probably had a moment of imposter syndrome, but I was qualified in every other way, except for that little technicality. I hadn't done it before, but I immediately threw myself and it was like, “How can I become the best social media manager they ever had? What can I do?” Twitter was fairly new then but how fast can I figure it out? How fast can I show them the results? I did but it comes back to being open, willing to learn, willing to accept constructive criticism or feedback. That's key too. On the flip side of that, if you are training someone, if you are supervising or managing, make sure you give feedback in a constructive way. Make sure the person is open, but give them something tangible that they can work with. I hope that helps your audience.
It's super helpful. I love seeing imposter syndrome as not having enough confidence because that's it at its core. I also cringe at the phrase, but I work with enough leaders who use it, especially in tech who seem to adopt that language sometimes. I appreciate you talking about it. What are some of the best ways for people to find you, Andrea?
LinkedIn is my favorite platform. I don't consider it social media so much. It's a great business and professional network. I'm the only Andrea Wilson Woods that I know of on LinkedIn and my website is AndreaWilsonWoods.com and the book, you can get it at BetterOffBald.com. All the online retailers are listed there. I'm sure there's one from Canada too. For my nonprofit is BlueFaery.org and for Cancer University, it’s Cancer.University.
It's been such a pleasure to have you on my show. I’ve loved talking to you and I think that the work that you're doing is meaningful and useful. Thank you for the work that you do in the world.
Thank you for having me on a show, Melanie.
I loved talking with Andrea about how she does self-care in a profession that carries some heavy emotional labor. I loved hearing her talk about her rituals as a way to care for herself, both in the morning and evening. I also was fascinated by how she talked about taking a job that was outside of her comfort zone. She thought, “How fast can I show results?” That measurement and the drive to be able to measure the impact is powerful in a new role and can be applied to all of us. If we want to improve our performance, what we need to think about is, “How fast can I show results?” I'll also add, it's great to make sure that your data collection is good so that you know what those results are. It's been great talking with Andrea. Go experiment.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.