Reinvention is the Best Revenge

Here, how five businesses were born of personal crises.

By Dana Hudepohl
Monica Knoll took all kinds of day jobs while she worked to launch CANCER101.
Photograph: Photo: Kyoko Hamada

Monica Knoll, New York

Burned by: A callous workplace
Her comeback: Founding a nonprofit that’s helped 100,000 cancer patients

In 2000, Monica Knoll was ecstatic when she landed a job as a high-end marketing executive. She didn’t mind the 80-hour workweeks, and she thrived in the fast-paced environment.

Six months into the job, Knoll learned she had breast cancer. But the disease didn’t slow her down: Two weeks after a double mastectomy, she was back at the office overseeing a huge ad campaign. She’d sneak out for doctor appointments and return to finish 12- to 14-hour days. Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. She got complimentary voice mails from the CEO, a standing ovation at a company dinner and a raise. “Work was my saving grace,” she says.

Knoll kept working through eight rounds of chemotherapy, but the harsh medications eventually wore her down. “My eyes watered constantly, I had sores in my mouth, my bones ached, and I was exhausted just walking one block,” she says. When she lost her hair, she noticed that the CEO started treating her differently. One morning when she was feeling especially lousy, Knoll called in sick. “The CEO phoned me back to say, ‘I can’t run a company without you here. I need you to call me ahead of time when you think you’re going to be sick,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘But how am I going to know?’ ”

A few months later, the CEO brought in someone new above her. Soon, Knoll says, she was being criticized for having too many doctor appointments; she was required to return to work after her 5 pm radiation treatments and stay until 9 or 10 pm. “My integrity is wrapped up in my job performance, so to be told that I was slacking off was the worst,” Knoll says. “My self-esteem was shattered.”

On the anniversary of the day she learned she had breast cancer—­October 1, 2001—Knoll was called in to discuss an exit strategy. She says she was assured that things would get better but was fired the next day for poor performance. Stunned, she went home, fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the next afternoon. During the three months that followed, she did nothing but recuperate for the first time since her diagnosis. “If I hadn’t been working so hard, it wouldn’t have taken so long to feel better,” she says.

In her downtime, Knoll reflected on the difficulties of coping with cancer and wondered, What could I have done to make that easier? She came up with an idea that she knew could help thousands: a planner to give new cancer patients a comprehensive guide to treatment and recovery through 10 years of medical care. “There are wedding planners and baby planners,” she says. “Why not a cancer planner?” She mocked up a folder complete with a resource list, questions to ask a health care team, a glossary of medical terms and a section for tracking bills, insurance information and business cards. In 2002 she founded the nonprofit CANCER101 ( and began raising funds to make her vision a reality. CANCER101 distributed the first of its planners in 2004 and has since given them to 100,000 patients in more than 300 cancer centers across the U.S.

Knoll tried the planner herself when she received a diagnosis of stage 3C ovarian cancer in 2006. Currently in treatment and doing well, Knoll works with leading organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, and has speaking engagements around the world. Her salary of $95,000 dwarfs the $60,000 her old job paid her, and she’s happier than ever. “It’s not healthy to hold anger,” she says. “CANCER101’s success has been the best and healthiest way to get even.”

Gail Ambrosius, Madison, Wis.

Burned by: State budget cuts
Her comeback: Opening a gourmet chocolate shop with sales of $1 million

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