Resi CEO Lisa Montgomery reveals some candid insights to Jill Fraser about the toughest challenge of her life.
It’s an all too common scenario. A colleague, friend or family member who looks a picture of health, possesses boundless energy and appears to be deftly juggling the demands of a high-flying career along with home and personal commitments, is suddenly struck down with a life-threatening illness.
Lisa Montgomery recently issued a statement announcing that she is taking a 12-month leave of absence from her position of CEO at Resi in order to devote time to her recovery from breast cancer.
She agreed to an interview with MPA for two reasons: to stress that “no one is bullet proof”; and to urge people not to dismiss the subtle signs of ill health under the delusion that busy people can outrun and outmanoeuvre illness. Sounding depleted but upbeat, Montgomery spoke to MPA of the shock when the fast-growing cancer was diagnosed and what it will mean to swap the buzz of boardrooms for the tranquillity of mindful meditation, meals grabbed-on-the-run for a well-planned, nutritional diet, and time to smell the roses and heal following a 10-hour operation later this month.
Q: Were there early warning signs that something was amiss?
There were a couple of health nudges that I didn’t think were significant. Now in hindsight I know I should have heeded them.
Q: Are you saying that you pushed through them?
I acknowledged them but continued with the same lifestyle that probably caused them. That’s what we tend to do in this business. We think because we’re so busy there is no time for illness. And illness only happens to others.
A day in the life of any mortgage professional begins at 5.30am. We’re up exercising, reading emails or looking at the news. Our first meeting is at 8.30am and we get home at 7.00 or 8.00pm and immediately check our emails again.
I wouldn’t say I’ve been defined by my career, but for 30 years it’s been a dominant part of my life. I didn’t even take a break to have children.
Lately I’ve been consulting with a Buddhist monk psychologist who has been teaching me mindfulness meditation. During a recent consultation I admitted: my life has been my work and I’ve given up my life for my work. Now I need to give up my work for my life.
Q: When was the diagnosis?
On 12 June I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Only 10 months prior to that I’d had a mammogram. I have had regular mammograms and ultrasounds for years but I still got breast cancer. That’s part of what I want to emphasise. You have to be in tune with your body and all changes must be observed.
Q: Did you discover a lump?
Yes, but that lump was not the cancer. It was diagnosed as a cyst. It was during the process of having the fluid removed from the cyst that the doctor discovered cancer underneath and it was fast growing. If I had waited until my next mammogram perhaps the story wouldn’t have been as rosy.
Because it was fast growing, the decision was taken to have chemotherapy as a preventative measure. That was a huge issue for me. I didn’t take any medication. Not even Panadol. I never thought that I would have to put chemicals like that into my body. It was a very confronting moment. I had to walk into a room, sit down and have someone put a needle and destructive chemicals into my arm – chemicals that I knew were going to save my life.
Q: How did the chemo affect you?
I’ve seen enormous changes in my body. There have been many side-effects, including weight and condition loss. Sometimes I think I have the strength of an 85-yearold woman.
Q: Did you go through disbelief?
I went into shock for about a week and had to stop myself from thinking the worst. My husband, Drew, has been my strength. When you get news like this, your mind starts to imagine the worst and doubt takes over. It’s easy to get scared.
After every medical appointment, Drew would talk me through what we had heard and he would latch onto every positive comment and instil me with optimism and restore my confidence to the point where I could start to deal with it.
I made a decision when I was first diagnosed that I was going to effect change immediately. I started researching the regimes of the 85% of women who have survived breast cancer. I didn’t want to know about the women who didn’t survive.
I decided to control the things I could control and rely on my medical professionals to do the rest. A word of warning: the internet can be your friend and your foe. Through Google, you find all sorts of things including life expectancy calculators, which I didn’t go near.
Q: Did you ask a lot of questions of your oncologists?
I’m still asking questions! I’ve been incredibly impressed with the level of honesty. You tend to grasp onto anything that indicates that you’re going to live a long time. I’m pleased to say that this message is coming regularly now.
Q: You’ve been at work through much of your treatment. How did you cope with the side-effects?
I had a lumpectomy and then chemo. I was due to have six weeks of radiation therapy but on 26 July, I learned I had the breast cancer gene. I was not expecting that result because there is no evidence of breast cancer in our family. What I didn’t realise is that ovarian cancer is linked to breast cancer. It’s the breast cancer/ovarian cancer gene.
My mother passed away from ovarian cancer. So did her sister. I had the genetic test and the result was positive. This means I have a high predisposition to breast cancer and ovarian cancer and rather than walk around with a time bomb in my shirt, I have made the decision to have what they term risk reduction surgery, which is a double mastectomy and the removal of my ovaries and tubes.
That happens on 21 November. It’s a 10-hour operation, including removal and reconstruction. That will reduce the risk to 0–2%. If there’s a history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in your family, be proactive. Check with a genetic specialist and if you are eligible for a test, have it.
If I had known this I would have had my ovaries removed when I was 40 as knew I wasn’t going to have kids. That may have changed the outcome because having your ovaries removed reduces your risk of developing breast cancer.
Q: Have your colleagues been supportive?
They have been remarkable. I have been blessed with an amazing team. Not only my senior team but Resi’s two managing directors, Peter James and Jim Christie. They are incredibly compassionate human beings as well as great businessmen.
Q: How has your lifestyle changed?
The 85% of people who have beaten breast cancer share three factors in common. One is their nutrition. I’ve now dramatically changed my diet and reduced my intake of alcohol. The second is their mind. In this business, we’re always thinking about tomorrow’s appointments or an upcoming job, but mindfulness is about being present with what is happening right now. Third is about exercising and managing the body so that it’s fit and strong.
Q: How difficult was it to step down as CEO for 12 months?
The first 12 months after breast cancer treatment is critical and I want to give myself the best chance of a long life. To do that, I need to focus on the three things I’ve just mentioned. In other words for the next 12 months, I need to be the CEO of Lisa Montgomery!
Also, Resi needs a CEO who is fully engaged. It’s got great momentum happening at the moment and we want that to continue.
Q: Were you part of the selection process for the choice of your temporary replacement, Angelo Malizis?
Yes. Angelo was my CEO at Wizard for 12 months and I experienced firsthand his capable and competent management style and vast knowledge of the space. He is analytical and strategic. It’s a great opportunity for Resi to have someone with a different skill set andapproach at the helm for 12 months.