Redefining success when illness takes everything - Women's Agenda

Redefining success when illness takes everything

Ambitious, successful and thriving on stress, Fleur Marks’s advertising career took a significant turn when she was diagnosed with a serious and incurable illness and forced to rethink her work and life.

Three and a half years since first receiving the news that she had an auto-immune disease, Marks now has a vastly different view on the value of success, family, money and what it means to be a leader. Her own adversity has enabled a journey that’s seen her achieve a new level of personal control – despite losing so much control to an illness that can give and take from her health as it pleases.

We speak one afternoon over the phone and she tells me she’s finally ready to tell her story. She believes she can reach out to other mums suffering from illness and can offer advice on what it means to redefine success and truly own who you are. I believe she can also teach us all a few things about resilience and how we can all appreciate the life and success we have.

A former director with Ogilvy, Marks managed some of the largest accounts in the country before falling ill, including Telstra and St George. Addicted to working hard and a self-confessed control freak, Marks believed she had it all: husband, kids, house, holiday home and a brilliant career.

Indeed she put that much pressure on herself, that back in 2009 she thought she needed to get back into boot camp when she found herself coughing at the 32-kilometre mark of a marathon in Paris.

Continuing with the ill health another eight weeks after returning home to Australia, a colleague at Ogilvy told her to get to the doctor. The best news, she was told, would be tuberculosis. The worst, lymphoma. Turns out Marks had something different altogether: a rare disease called Sarcoidosis.

Marks underwent chest surgery and steroid treatment before commencing 14 months of chemotherapy in May 2010. Although originally in a period of denial about the disease – and actually trying to fit more into her day in order to cope – the chemo was taking its toll.

She finally had to give up much of what she says defined her – her work. It was a long and painful process which saw her “finally let go of the old Fleur”.

“I went from a massive team of thirty people to dealing with my doctor, my kids and my dog,” she says. “There was letting go during all different parts of the journey. There was letting go of success, a nice house, the private school for the kids, holiday house and dining out. I really had everything. It was letting go of success and the wrapping of what we think success could actually mean.”

Sarcoidosis has put Marks in what she describes as a constant “holding pattern” on health, not knowing what the next day could bring and having little control over when she will and will not be healthy. She describes the chronic disease as an illness that “wonders your body, deciding where it will go next.” It can make you deaf, blind and suddenly affect almost any organ in your body. It presents like lymphoma, with symptoms that can fluctuate on and off.

All that means it’s a disease that must be managed with no guarantees, nor predictability on what the next day will bring.

But it’s a disease Marks believes has ultimately made her a better mum and a better business director in her current role at Lawrence Creative, part of the STW Group, where she works part time.

She’s more empathetic and compassionate to staff and clients, she tells me. She’s less concerned about her own ego and more interested in the genuine power of collaboration. She also has more confidence to declare when something’s simply not going to work – rather than slogging through in the hope it may happen – and to share her knowledge with others, which she does by teaching at an advertising school and fashion college.

“I think I own more of who I am now,” she says. “Before, I was driven by insecurity a little bit, I always wanted to prove myself. Now I think I understand what I bring to the table and what I will and will not put up with. I’m able to have more honest conversations with clients and stay more true to my integrity.”

She also feels more in control, despite the illness taking control of her health. “I’m a much calmer person now. It would take a lot to faze me. In day-to-day business I’m very grounded and have a clear perspective. As a leader, that’s a good thing.”

Having to give up work for a significant period and then returning part time, Marks lost much of how she once defined her own ‘success’: health, money, house, pride. She learnt how to ask for help. And she received plenty of it.

A blue esky left outside the family home while she was undergoing chemo was continually refilled with meals, flowers, magazines and candles – often anonymously. Fellow mums offered to cook and drive the kids to school, and plenty offered tips for the bad days – simple things such as freezing sandwiches.

The blue esky, Marks says, is a sign the community spirit is alive and well. We all need to learn when to ask for help and to accept such help when it’s offered.

Marks now has a very different idea of what ‘success’ means to her. She values the good days, and likes to celebrate small achievements. Her two children have each had to grow up beyond their years and deal with the continued fear of losing their mother. She lives in the moment, she says, apologising for the cliché.

“I think success now is very much about being present in the moment. It’s being able to have enough energy to get through the day and night. It’s about really preparing my children for their life and respecting the fact that, while I hope I’ll be there, I’m not completely sure that I will. It’s making sure they have the best foundations for life,” she says.

“I’m in this new body. I’m not the same person, but I’ve let go of the control. It’s been a bit of a Buddhist journey; what’s important to me now is completely different to what drove me before.”

So how does she personally cope? Marks tells me she manages by using techniques such as mindful meditation, as well as learning to pace herself by using the word ‘no’ more than the word ‘yes’. She also dresses the part every day, doing her best to look good even when she fells terrible. It provides a small psychological boost.

Following that, she knows to take care of herself.

“That means realising you have to put your own oxygen mask on first,” she says. “I’ve got to look after me before I look after anyone else.”

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox