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Lori Schaefer-Weaton is CEO of one of the top employers in Fairfield, active in statewide campaigns to promote jobs in manufacturing, a community leader in her hometown of Fairfield. She's also a wife and mother and stepmother to five teens and pre-teens.
She doesn't have time to get knocked off-balance. But then she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
'When you hear that word, it makes you put things in perspective pretty quickly,” she said. 'It makes you realign your priorities. We should all know that we're only here for a little while, but the reality is when you have five kids and a company to run, you really don't think like that.
'But that day, when you first get the diagnosis and you don't know what your treatment plan is, your mind just goes all over,” she said.
TO YOUR KNEES
The diagnosis came shortly before Memorial Day weekend in May 2018 - just a few weeks from her oldest daughter's high school graduation. Not wanting her illness to mar her daughter's memories, she and husband. Nate Weaton, decided to hold off telling anyone.
'That ended up being a blessing,” recalled Schaefer-Weaton, CEO of Agri-Industrial Plastics in Fairfield. 'It gave my husband and I time to get used to that awful word - it just brings you to your knees. But we were able to deal with it together at first and create a plan - how we would tell the kids, our families. And then to build a communication strategy for my company.”
Schaefer-Weaton said she was lucky - her oncologist told her right away her cancer wasn't hereditary, so it wouldn't come back. Also, with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, doctors were optimistic they could eradicate it altogether.
'It was super, super hard telling the kids, but my husband and I were in a better place and could say, ‘We're going to say this word, and it's going to shock you,' but then we could immediately say, ‘Things are going to be a little different, but you've got to keep doing what you're doing,'” she said. 'We knew things would be OK, but the kids didn't. Our daughter was going to Mizzou - I looked at her and said, ‘This is not going to change your path.'”
Encouraging her daughter to stay on her path helped Schaefer-Weaton on her own journey. Her treatment began the day after her daughter's graduation and went on for months afterward: 12 weeks of one kind of chemotherapy, eight weeks of another. She had surgery in November, then started radiation. Her treatments ended in March of this year.
Once word got out, she said, the support was overwhelming. And not just from her family.
'I found out about a lot of women who went through breast cancer who I didn't know went through it,” she said. 'The network that presents itself is pretty awesome.”
Her other family - her 'company family” - held her up throughout her treatments and beyond, she said.
'One day, when I had shaved my head, the employees had arranged for a hat day so everyone was wearing a hat,” she said. 'I came in, and the whole company had hats on, and T-shirts that said, ‘Stronger Together.'”
When she lost her hair, her husband and several of his friends shaved their heads, too.
'I just always felt that support from every side,” Schaefer-Weaton said. 'I have a super strong management team that did not skip a beat - at the end of the day, they all just stepped up and took over.”
One thing cancer did for her, she said, was force her to take a step back and look at how she was spending her time.
'There were days I'd spend all my energy to be downstairs so I could be around our kids from 6 to 9 p.m., just to spend time with them,” she said. 'Those three hours were more important to me than making it into the office.”
She also readjusted her state and local activism, dropping off some boards and board positions.
'It was a pretty easy transition in and out, just because of my team,” she said. 'There were things before that I hadn't delegated, so now I do. I feel even now that I probably have more time at work, and that's good, that I need to spend time being connected to all 200 or so employees. My time is better spent keeping a pulse on what is going on and focusing on our long-term strategy.”
As for her own long-term strategy?
'I feel very fortunate that I have a strong Christian faith, but there is always something I want to get done here,” she said. 'We have to put a brave face on for the kids, but looking at them in different moments can be hard - I remember being at my daughter's graduation, when we hadn't told anyone, and I
was thinking, ‘Oh, my god, will I be here when she graduates college?'”
'We all need to realize our time is limited. Use it well,” she said. 'This journey is still going, to some extent, but realigning your priorities will help get you through, and for me, family, faith and friends are at the top.”