What Having a Brain Tumor Can Do for Your Brand

Originally posted on More.com.

For the record, I’m not suggesting that anyone try to give herself a brain tumor. (How would that even be possible? Tape your smartphone to your head? Slather your scalp with parabens?)

But I can’t help thinking about the fact that for a handful of famous, already alluring women, a brain tumor diagnosis has strangely added to their appeal. It gives them complexity, a problem to make them seem more empathetic and human, another dimension to their stories. These women made meningiomas glam.

When Sheryl Crow received her diagnosis last year, she put on her game face, first mentioning it in passing during an interview with the decidedly non-A-list Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I worried about my memory so much that I went and got an MRI. And I found out I have a brain tumor,” she told her interviewer. “And I was, like, ‘See? I knew there was something wrong.’”

Crow went on to say that because it was benign, she didn’t really have to be anxious about it, which proved to be true for her. The breast cancer survivor told Katie Couric that she blamed her cellphone—though she couldn’t find a doctor to confirm that—and said learning that she had a tumor was “a sobering moment” but “nothing I have to worry about.”

When Mary Tyler Moore was diagnosed with her meningioma in 2011, she was similarly nonchalant, dispatching a representative to share the news with the media—which responded to word of a famous actress having a brain tumor by providing some education that most likely wouldn’t have been part of the story if an inadvertent celebrity spokesperson hadn’t been involved.

Going back a bit farther in time, Elizabeth Taylor got a glam boost from her craniotomy in 1997. The Los Angeles Times couldn’t wait to report that the actress was “resting comfortably” after her surgery.

It makes it all look so effortless.

And yet I know that it isn’t. I’ve been there myself. As I’ve chronicled in a series of posts on the Huffington Post, I was flying high in 2007. Chief marketing officer at JWT Worldwide, I’d been credited with popularizing the word metrosexual, and my annual trend predictions were being picked up around the globe. Between all that, plus international speaking engagements and a busy calendar of media appearances, I was the picture of the energetic, successful executive.

Yet I wasn’t myself—not quite sick, but I knew something was wrong.

After I insisted on a CT scan from a local radiologist, I got the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy call in my office the next day and was told what I already “knew”—the scan showed a brain tumor, probably benign.
 I was one of the lucky ones myself. After an eight-hour surgery, I had a remarkably quick recovery. When I came to, I asked for my corporate credit cards and BlackBerrys (yes, plural), panicking that I was out of control and out of touch. I logged on for a conference call at work less than a week later and appeared on 60 Minutes about six weeks after my surgery—looking tired but with my speech, thought processes and head of blond hair intact.

And yes, the brain tumor has become part of my personal and professional identity. How could it not be? 
My post-craniotomy self (aka brand) has become more of an advocate, especially for veterans who return from Afghanistan and other wars and conflict zones with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, and also for anyone with serious head injuries. I’ve reorganized my philanthropic priorities at home and at the office, where I’m CEO of Havas PR North America, an agency awarded many times over for our work (both paid and pro bono) for a range of fantastic causes. I’ve also focused some of my writing on brain health, on a new focus on braininess, on the possible digital connection to tumors, and on activities, such as football, that can lead to brain injuries.

Part of the drill for anyone who has had a brain tumor removed is going back for scans at various intervals: three months, then six, then a year, with more time going by between each trip into the MRI tunnel. Normally, with every test, tumor survivors feel better, more optimistic that their first visit to “tumorland” will be their last. But my last scan turned up an anomaly.
 And so here I am on round two.

Like Sheryl Crow, I’m trying to put on my game face, despite the fact that my scan showed what had been overlooked on two previous scans—a tumor that is not only existent but had also grown dramatically from late June to January. (What these “bad scans” have done to my psyche is unimaginable. I used to ignore every ache and pain, even symptom, because if I was tumor-free, I was all clear. Finding out that doctors make mistakes, even big ones, I am trying to tamp down a constant fear that my next doc will be like those radiologists—superficial, irresponsible or worse, suddenly owning up to a mistake when it was substantially bigger six months later. And how can I now trust airplane mechanics, cab drivers and anyone else who holds my fate in their hands?)

My surgery is slated for March 13. I’m optimistic about the surgery, thanks especially to my amazing doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital and my family and supporters all over the world. Like Elizabeth Taylor, I’ll be “resting comfortably” at home myself, hopefully as stylishly as she no doubt was, but not for long. Being busy at work will keep me motivated and help with my recovery. And I’m already eager to discover how my brand will evolve after going through this second experience.

Mar 14, 2013 | Posted by in brands, Change, CSR, health and wellness, Insights | 2 comments

Comments (2 Responses)

  1. Beth Newman says:

    You’ve evolved ‘the age of survivor’ to ‘the time of thrivors’ – thank you for sharing the power of vulnerability.

  2. Marian, I’m so sorry to read this! I have no doubt that you will come through brilliantly — all best for a full, speedy & brand-worthy
    recovery! xoxo Joanna

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