by Parveen Chopra
Parul Deora Somani was an MIT grad with an MBA from Harvard, who once led teams advising Fortune 500 companies and private equity firms, when life threw her a curveball. Now based near San Francisco, this mother-warrior-storyteller has transmuted her experience as a young cancer patient and caregiver to focus on championing health, resilience, and a positive mindset through her speaking engagements and written stories.The South Asia Times: Having lived cancer free for 5 years, you are ready to write the next chapter in your story…
Parul Somani: Following my diagnosis and treatment, I continued my career as a business executive, shifting my focus from consumer retail to mission-driven health-tech start-ups. Over these past several years, however, I’ve also been sharing my story to help others. My cancer blog (http://cancerat31.wordpress.com) has been read in ~80 countries, I’ve been interviewed for films on survivorship and mindset, podcasts, and TV and radio segments, and have shared my experiences and learnings through public speaking engagements at the new Stanford Hospital, the Stanford School of Medicine, and multiple healthcare conferences.
But now I realize that what I was doing on the side is what I want to focus on full time: sharing my experiences and learnings to inspire and educate others. My inspiration will always be rooted in my personal cancer journey, but I want to stand for something bigger than just a survival story. I want to share the power of positivity and how resilience and the right mindset can help create silver linings. I want to build a platform that highlights other peoples’ stories of resilience, educates how to develop a positive and thankful mindset, and inspires people to find meaning out of their own life’s hardships.
What kind of platform is this?
Parul Somani: I started Silver Linings (http://www.DesigningSilverLinings.com) with the mission to inspire others to design their own silver linings, with an initial focus on speaking engagements and written stories. As a speaker, I aim to help organizations and individuals understand the value of patient advocacy, resilience, and a positive mindset and can work with them to design a talk that is of most interest to their members. For example, I’m presenting at a healthcare company’s offsite this month with a focus on my patient and caregiver experience, while also in discussions with a Fortune 500 company to present to their employees a talk focused on the power of positivity. As a writer, I’m publishing Stories (http://www.Designing SilverLinings.com/ stories) on my website that cover my experiences, perspectives, and learnings, as well as interviews with other warriors about their own stories of resilience (health-related or otherwise) and with academic professionals regarding the research and science behind mindset and positivity. Over time, we will see how the platform grows – it could include my own podcast, publishing a book, doing a TED Talk, or something I haven’t even thought about yet.
What do you mean by “designing silver linings”?
Parul Somani: What’s fascinating about my story is not that I was diagnosed with cancer as a young working mother, but how many lives have been impacted by that experience over time and the silver linings that have come out of that dark cloud. That said, it’s not that something bad happened to me and I then sat back and did nothing, and good things happened and I found silver linings. It was through specific actions that I took through very difficult times that led to the creation of silver linings. My father had 25+ years of hearing loss to the point that he was nearly deaf by the time I got diagnosed. We had consultations with many ENT specialists over the years, but they all said nothing could be done. When I got diagnosed with cancer, we got access to a medical service to help me find the right doctor and clinical trials that could be available for my diagnosis. While outside the scope of their project, I asked that team for ENT specialist recommendations. They referred us to a doctor in Florida who we would never have come across on our own. We sent him the medical records and through remote consultation he told us that my father had been misdiagnosed for 25+ years and what he had was Otosclerosis (abnormal growth of bone of the middle ear) which could be treated with a one-hour outpatient surgery. Two surgeries later, on his left and right ears, my dad can hear fine without any hearing aid. It has changed his life, my mom’s life and the entire family dynamic.
Then there is the huge silver lining that relates to my mom. I was the first person in my family to get genetic testing done to find that I inherited a mutation that gave me a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. My cancer diagnosis and the events that later followed helped me convince my mom to get genetic testing done, which nobody told her to undergo even though she had breast cancer 30 years ago. We learnt that she had the same mutation as me. The high risk of ovarian cancer worried me because the current screenings for it are not very effective and by the time it is detected, it is often at an advanced, less treatable stage. I convinced my mom to undergo preventive surgery to reduce her risk. The results of the biopsy on the removed organ indicated that there was actually already a high grade tumor growing in her tubes that we had miraculously caught at Stage 1. Taking the learnings from my difficult experience and proactively using them to help my mom did not just lead to any silver lining, it saved my mom’s life.
So, cancer is treatable now…
Parul Somani: There is significant advancement in, for example, breast cancer detection and treatment over the past 20 years. Just having the genetic information and knowing that I had that increased risk helped me advocate for a biopsy. I was only 31 years old and pregnant then and healthcare providers thought it was likely a clogged milk duct. I actually couldn’t feel the lump anymore after delivery once my milk came in. Had I waited a year for the biopsy until I stopped nursing and felt the lump again, my prognosis would have been very different.
Any exercise regime you follow?
Parul Somani: I trained in Bharatanatyam as a child and performed various forms of dance throughout college and professionally throughout adulthood for years. Following treatment, I returned to Indian dance for many years. Now, I regularly go to a studio that combines dance, yoga and Pilates.
Your husband has been supportive?
Parul Somani: Most definitely. Along with my parents, Ash was my rock throughout my treatment. He was incredibly supportive during those difficult times and is very supportive of my work with Silver Linings. His mother had passed away from breast cancer when he was young, so it is a cause that is important to both of us. I am blessed with a loving support system, including my sister and other close family and friends, who are all excited for my new mission.A positive mindset and such things help in treatment and recovery.
Parul Somani: I naturally had a positive mindset going through my experience, which I tried to reflect in my cancer blog as well, focusing on what I could change, accepting what I could not change, and finding moments of empowerment. When my hair started falling out I did not want it to be another thing that was happening to me. I chose to shave my hair off and very proudly wore my bald head in public. It’s a personal decision, but I felt that was a more authentic representation of who I was at the time.
It is said that life is 10% of what happens to us and 90% of how we respond to it. Whether facing significant life hardships or just daily frustrations, I strongly believe in the power of positivity and the impact our mindset can have on our health and happiness.