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Crisis, Cancer & Covid: How Dr Cat Stone turned to EO when she needed it most

September 20, 202310 min read

When talking with any entrepreneur, some common themes come up: the initial spark of an idea, the challenges involved in getting a business off the ground, how hard it is to get the right people onboard and lead a team, and how tempting it can be to give it all up when times get tough. But there are only a few entrepreneurs who do all of that while also dealing with some of the toughest personal cards anyone could be dealt – and come out of it more hopeful than ever.

Dr Catherine Stone is one of those entrepreneurs.

The Accidental Entrepreneur

Catherine (Cat) never set out to be a business owner. It was the late 90s and she was training to become a plastic surgeon when a friend at a dinner party asked “Can you do my Botox®️ for me?”

“My initial response was ‘What do you want to put that crap in your face for?’” laughs Cat. “At that point it was pretty unknown to put it in people’s faces. I had used it in cerebral palsy kids to help them walk, but thought it sounded weird, so said I’d get back to them.”

Once Cat started researching, she realised Botox could be used for plenty of things – excessive sweating, facial spasms, eye spasms, and of course reduction of wrinkles. She did the training, trying it on her boyfriend at the time and was astounded when it worked – and the idea for The Face Place was born.

“My seed capital was selling my pride and joy, my Jeep Cherokee,” shares Cat. “I set the clinic up for $13.5k in 2001 and for the first nine months I did EVERYTHING – including cleaning the toilets. Meanwhile, I went all in trying to learn how to run a business. I went to Australia and Thailand to see how people did treatments there and did training in North America with the pioneers of cosmetic Botox. I even did a research study with them, and was involved in the official launch of Botox into Australia and NZ .”

From there, the business grew. She launched New Zealand’s first medical spa, was nominated as a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year, featured on the TV show ‘10 Years Younger in 10 Days’ and set up an Albany clinic with the intention of starting a training academy – a long-held dream. And she would have – if it weren’t for a certain global financial crisis coming along...

The Great Financial (and Personal) Crisis

“When the GFC hit, everything changed,” remembers Cat. “My fiancé at the time had invested very aggressively in property in the lead up and it was everything we could do just trying to avoid losing everything.”

At the edge of burnout, in the midst of a breakup with her fiancé and a hectic time for both her business and her responsibilities managing properties, Cat knew that something needed to give.

Luckily, she had her EO New Zealand forum to turn to.

“I’d first joined EO in 2003 or 2004 and was able to turn to my forum at my absolute worst,” shares Cat. “I thought I was going to lose everything.”

Her forum moderator called an emergency forum – and Cat says it helped her realise that even if her business hit the worst-case scenario, she could still work as a doctor for someone else. 

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“It took the wind out of the stress I was under,” says Cat. “Without that forum and their insights, there is a high possibility I wouldn’t still be here – financially or physically. It gave me the strength to move through the tough stuff.”

Cancer during Covid

The Face Place – and Cat – made it through the GFC. Cat rebuilt her life and business, which thrived in the decade that followed. But 2020 brought with it massive new challenges – and not just the kind that we were all facing globally.

“On the 28th of January 2020, I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time,” shares Cat. “In February I had a lumpectomy. I was meant to be travelling to Monaco and Brazil over March and April before starting radiotherapy but obviously the world changed.”

Instead of travelling the world, Cat dealt with a double whammy – radiotherapy (in the middle of lockdown, no less) and dealing with all her in-person clinics being completely shut down. 

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Side effects and struggles

Cat’s life changed dramatically after the radiotherapy, as she was put on the breast cancer medication Tamoxifen. 

“The type of breast cancer I had basically feeds off higher levels of oestrogen, so I was put on Tamoxifen, which is an oestrogen blocker,” says Cat. “I got the worst 5% of symptoms –while I’d still recommend it, tamoxifen and I didn’t get on so well.”

While she was working from home in the aftermath of her radiotherapy, Cat couldn’t understand why she was so emotional and exhausted – dragging herself through her days, sleeping ten hours a night, waking up exhausted, and having to nap in the afternoon. Even working reduced hours, she was struggling.

“I got really bad brain fog – my head would just go completely blank in the middle of conversations. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Then “the crunch” came.

“I had heard stories of people ‘seeing red’ but thought it was a fallacy – until I experienced it,” shares Cat. “I went to open a drawer to make dinner and found it was stuck. I literally saw a red film come over my eyes and lost it – yelling, finding the colander that was blocking the drawer, kicking it across the room, running to my bedroom and sobbing for half an hour.

“I couldn’t understand what was going on – what was this?”

Cat messaged her oncologist, who identified the problem as the medication and got her to stop. Although she started feeling better, the fatigue continued for several months, on and off – and she knew she needed more support.

“I’d dropped away from EO for a few years, but when I was looking back on what had helped me last time I was in a bad space, I realised it was EO. I stepped back in and I’m so glad I did, because in October 2020 my dad was diagnosed with a form of bone marrow cancer.”

Leaning on her forum, Cat juggled taking care of her dad with gradually healing her body and running her business. Through the first part of 2021, she started feeling better and even booked a kitesurfing trip in August as an early celebration of her birthday – one which she arrived back from and a mere hours later another lockdown was announced.

“Once again, we didn’t know what we were going to do with the business – and that was the long lockdown!”

Just as it looked like we were about to come out of lockdown, Cat was hit with some more bad news – more cancer, in the same spot as before. Plus, she was getting hit with horrific pain from cramps and birth-type pains – which turned out to be uterine fibroids (non-cancerous tumours that grow in and around the uterus). 

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Hitting the lowest point

Once the surgery was done, Cat needed to go back on tamoxifen – the drug that had caused her so much emotional and physical struggle the first time round. 

“This time round, I was at least prepared – but it didn’t make it any easier,” shares Cat. “I waited three months until I recovered from the surgery before starting and took six months off work so I could try to tolerate Tamoxifen without the stress of work. I went to stay with my mum in Mexico so she could look after me.”

But despite her best efforts, the side effects still kicked in.

“I was in tears the whole time, struggling with suicidal ideation. I’d have uncontrollable urges to drive my scooter into the other side of the road or would wake up at 4am in the morning writing very dark poetry,” recalls Cat. “I was in a very, very bad space.”

Cat once again had to contact her oncologist, who told her to stop the medicine – but this time it took a lot longer to leave her body, forcing her to take extra time away from her business.

“When I’d gone into surgery, I’d asked my General Manager (who was also a breast cancer survivor) to take on a lot of my CEO role and handed off my medical team leader role to one of our nursing team. My forum helped me a lot in the process of handing off a lot of responsibilities.

“Then, in the middle of the depths of my despair, my GM let me know she wasn’t coping with the CEO role and was leaving to a different company.”

Cat was gutted – the GM had been with her for 11 years, starting out as her PA. But she could also see how much she’d been putting on her shoulders. “I could see it was a lot for her – especially with her Director bursting into tears at any moment and being incapable of making decisions.

Onto the next stage

Luckily, since then, things have started to get much easier. 

“We’ve got a new GM onboard who has been absolutely brilliant – she is the perfect person for the next stage of the business.”

Cat’s also had her final reconstruction surgery, and the brain fog and fatigue have finally lifted. “I’m feeling like I can cope with life again.”

And although she sadly lost her dad in October 2022, she says that in some ways having cancer gave her a real gift, as it meant she was already not working as much and got to go look after her dad for a month before he died at home with the support of hospice. “If I hadn’t had cancer, my dad wouldn’t have let me cancel patients. I was there with him when he passed, which was such a gift.”

But she says that’s not the only thing her cancer has given her.

“My body was saying ‘slow the f*** down’. Pre-cancer and Covid, I was easily working 60-80 hours – I was addicted to my work. My body was telling me to back up and start caring for me.”

What’s more, it’s also forced her to start working on her business instead of in it.

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“Most of the time I was the biggest roadblock in the business. Now, the business is flourishing without me in the way.”

Of course, that’s brought some emotional challenges too. “It’s been a mental and emotional journey around the shift in my identity. When Nicci came in and was so capable of doing stuff I used to do, I realised I wasn’t as important to the business anymore. I definitely felt a sense of loss around my personal identity and purpose.

“The shift came when I realised it was my opportunity to step back and move into what I love which is around innovation and keeping the business moving forward and looking ahead. So now that’s my focus – and it’s incredibly freeing.”

“It’s been such a gift”

Cat’s an incredible example of finding the silver lining in challenges – but she’s the first to admit that that perspective hasn’t always been the easiest to maintain.

“Tamoxifen, losing my right-hand woman, lockdowns – all hit my heart. I was constantly wondering what I’d done wrong.

“But now, feeling like I’m on the other side, I can see what a gift it’s been. I definitely don’t recommend getting cancer but it’s true what they say – when one door closes, many open.”

These days, Cat’s looking forward. She’s building a brilliant team, investing more than anybody else in the industry on education, and even launching the training academy – yes, the one she’s been dreaming about for years!

“There are lots of things falling in place and dreams coming true which wouldn’t have happened without this journey.

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“What I’ve done better with this journey than I did during the GFC was constantly asking myself ‘Where is the opportunity in this challenge?’ With the property saga, I wasted a lot of energy on resentment, disappointment, and anger along the way – although it also taught me not to be scared of failure. “This time round, my focus was to look for the gifts. 

“And it has been such a gift – but man, it’s been a journey.”

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