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Home / Featured / ‘It’s changed me as a person’: Mizzou law dean Lyrissa Lidsky reflects on experience with breast cancer

‘It’s changed me as a person’: Mizzou law dean Lyrissa Lidsky reflects on experience with breast cancer

Lyrissa Lidsky

After discovering a lump during a self-exam late last year and a subsequent diagnosis of an aggressive type of breast cancer, University of Missouri School of Law Dean Lyrissa Lidsky opted to be open in public and on Twitter about her experience with treatment and recovery. Lidsky, who is now cancer-free, said she hopes “someone is able to find their cancer more quickly because I was open about it.” Photo by Dana Rieck

Lyrissa Lidsky is running again.

The dean of the University of Missouri School of Law is quick to give updates of her current mileage as she trains for a half-marathon in February.

“I ran 4 miles this weekend,” she said in a recent phone call.

To understand what a feat 4 miles is — let alone 13.1 — one must first consider the year Lidsky has had.

Late last December, while performing a self-exam, she found a lump in her breast. Next came a diagnosis: early-stage HER2-positive breast cancer, an especially aggressive type.

What followed were chemotherapy treatments spanning the spring semester, then during the summer, a lumpectomy and a month of radiation treatment.

Lidsky said she is fortunate that great strides have been made in treatments for this type of cancer in recent years.

She is now cancer-free, but she is continuing a course of biologic infusions to help aid in her long-term remission. She said she’s back to her regular pace in life.

“My normal pace is pretty fast. I’m pretty energetic,” she said. “I’ve been on the road. I’ve been traveling to make up for lost time to see our alumni and go to national conferences and get the law school’s name out there.”

You might already know at least some of Lidsky’s story, though, thanks in part to her candor in the public sphere about her experience with cancer.

After receiving her diagnosis, Lidsky said she opted to be open about her cancer journey, including on her Twitter account, which is followed by just shy of 4,000 people.

She said going public about her diagnosis was something she weighed, noting “it’s a tremendously personal challenge and personal struggle.”

As an open and transparent person, she said she thought, why not fully embrace it? Plus, she said, it’s difficult to hide some aspects of cancer, including hair loss from chemotherapy.

She also thought about the potential for sharing life-saving messages with others about the importance of self-exams.

“If one person does a self-exam and you can save a life, that will be a victory,” she said.

In tweets, Lidsky counted down her chemo treatments and joked about her beauty supplies taunting her (including a photo of a can of Big Sexy Hair-brand hairspray in one). In August, she celebrated the end of radiation by tweeting that she “rang the bell” — with a bell emoji standing in for the word.

She also shared tips for surviving chemo, from the more practical side (wear slip-on shoes to appointments) to handling it emotionally. In a tweet, she said she found it helpful to joke about cancer and chemo.

“One of the worst parts of breast cancer is how scary the ‘c’ word is for others,” she said. “Besides, it’s great to make extra cash telling fortunes when I’m wearing my brightest head scarf and lipstick and big dangly earrings.”

Part of what made Lidsky’s sharing so remarkable is that so few deans in her position have been so forthcoming in public about similar experiences.

Earlier this year, she told she knew of only one other dean also undergoing cancer treatments while running a law school. Since then, that number has grown as her story has reached more people, she said.

Lidsky said she understands others’ decisions to remain private. Ultimately, though, going public has been a positive experience for her.

“I was grateful I had chosen to be more open because it really opened up a world to me I wouldn’t have seen and a whole cadre of people I might not have known had I chose not to be open,” she said. “I also hope someone is able to find their cancer more quickly because I was open about it.”

For other women in leadership positions facing a similar decision, Lidsky said, how they choose to address such a diagnosis depends on their personalities and what works best for them.

“To me it worked because it’s just who I am,” she said.

The ‘gift’ of cancer

Looking back, Lidsky said those around her were crucial to her recovery.

“I don’t think anybody can get through something like this without a network of support,” she said. “I must have one of the richest networks of support, thanks to the people at Mizzou, family, friends, alumni and students. It’s just been amazing.”

She listed generosity after generosity: A friend she hasn’t seen in decades knit a headcover for her. Friends and colleagues sent flowers. Colleagues planned and cooked meals for her each Friday night through May.

Her students also sent notes of support, which she keeps in a drawer in her office to tap when she’s in need of inspiration.

“The gift of having cancer is that you see the best of humankind, you really do,” she said. “People just give so generously — I can’t even explain to you the gift of it. I would give it back, don’t get me wrong — it’s changed me as a person, and I hope I can give back as much as I’ve received as a result of this experience.”

There was also a visible show of support within the law school: Students and faculty wore black wristbands with yellow lettering that said “I am Lidsky Strong.”

Lidsky said that no matter what happened through her experience with cancer, she has tried to keep moving forward.

“I’m used to being the most energetic person in any room, so this has been hard on me,” she said. “I’ve just tried to soldier on and keep going. When it’s rough to do that, I look at my wrist and it says, ‘I am Lidsky Strong’ and I say, ‘I can do this.’”

She said she feels grateful and lucky, noting there were points where she wasn’t sure if she’d survive.

“I don’t like it when people describe cancer as a fight because it sounds like someone lost a fight,” she said. “I was just very fortunate. I had superb medical care, superb support, and I was just fortunate.”

Opportunity for compassion

Today, Lidsky said, she’s more grateful and “strangely more optimistic and positive.”

Through her experience, she said, she’s learned the value of adapting to life’s circumstances, and also that experiencing difficulty helps to build greater empathy for others.

“All of us are going to have hard things in our lives,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to broaden our compassion for others.”

While she’s always believed that true leadership is wanting the best for the people around you, she said her experience has driven that home.

“I have a better understanding that life happens and that we all need support through the hardest things in our lives, and the role of a leader is to be there for the people of the institution,” she said.

Needing and accepting help from others has been humbling, she added.

“Knowing as a leader that sometimes you are vulnerable — I think it opens you up to realizing it’s a team endeavor, it’s a collective endeavor,” she said. “It’s not about you. It’s about mobilizing people to achieve a goal together.”

She also believes her cancer experience has made her a better leader because she’s learned to delegate more.

“I have the most amazing team around me, and I’ve learned that I don’t have to do everything because I do have an amazing team around me,” she said.

She’s also sharpened her priorities, focusing more on achieving work-life balance and spending more time with her family.

“It clarifies for you that you don’t have all the time in the world,” she said.