Shannon Ricketts: Fighting for her life, but still committed to her team

Team player. It’s high praise in the business world, an honour bestowed on people who are always ready and willing to do whatever’s necessary to help their colleagues achieve their objectives while overcoming obstacles in their path.

A 20-year industry professional, Shannon Ricketts has embodied those traits in her role as a senior digital and print buyer at Innocean. They are complemented by what the agency’s vice-president of media buying, Fiona Swanek, described as exceptional analytical and problem-solving skills. Her contributions to the agency since her arrival in 2015, said Swanek, have been “essential” to the media team’s accomplishments.

“Beyond her professional accomplishments, Shannon is a genuinely kind and compassionate person,” she added. “She is known for her positive attitude, infectious enthusiasm, and ability to lift the spirits of those around her.”

But for the past five years, Ricketts has redefined what it is to be a team player, continuing to make meaningful contributions to the agency while undergoing gruelling treatment to battle what is now incurable cancer.

Her 2018 diagnosis of cervical cancer marked the beginning of a long, arduous journey that would test both her physical and mental fortitude—requiring first a radical hysterectomy, followed by multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy before being informed that the cancer was incurable.

Upon receiving such a diagnosis, many people opt to quit working to focus on themselves and their treatment. But for Ricketts, her work with Innocean became something of a refuge, something she could still control in a situation that has wrested so much control from her.

“It sounds ridiculous, but for me working is kind of therapeutic,” she explains. “I do have deadlines, but I like that pressure. It makes me feel motivated. It helps me focus on something other than my illness and the struggles I’m having.

“I’m an extremely loyal person,” she adds. “I’ve been doing this for so long that if I don’t complete something, I feel like I’ve let not just myself down, but my whole team. Advertising and marketing is a team effort, not just one person, so if you don’t get something done, it affects everyone.”

Ricketts is not currently symptomatic, or in any pain. She has, however, run out of surgical treatment options. And while she responded well to radiation, her body simply can’t withstand any more. Instead, she is now undergoing weekly chemo aimed at halting the growth of the five tumours in her body, and preventing them from spreading.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, it’s not unheard of for people with cancer to encounter “problems” in their workplace when they try to continue working while in treatment or when returning to work. This could include being demoted or passed over for promotions. It is why Publicis Groupe introduced the Working With Cancer initiative earlier this year, urging employers to provide greater support for people battling the disease.

Ricketts, though, said that she has received nothing but support from Innocean. “I didn’t tell everybody I worked with, but I felt very comfortable telling the executives and certainly my boss,” she said. “They’ve been extremely supportive. I can’t say enough good things about how they’ve treated me. Work is work and we’ve got a job to do, but the fact they’ve been so accommodating and understand the struggle I’m going through, it helps a lot to know I have such good colleagues and directors.”

“[S]he has battled cancer with incredible courage and grace, never allowing her illness to impact the quality of her work or her commitment to the team,” said Swanek. “Shannon’s perseverance in the face of adversity has been an inspiration to all of us. Her determination and unwavering dedication to our organization are truly remarkable. We are fortunate to have her as a part of our team and are grateful for the invaluable contributions she has made to Innocean.”

Ricketts knows better than anyone that time is finite, and while she continues to work, she is also trying to cross some things off her bucket list. It’s mostly travel-related, she says, but she needs to get a little stronger before she can undertake any major trips.

At the same time, she’s also fighting valiantly against the disease. “They don’t use terms like terminal anymore, but it’s pretty much terminal,” she says bluntly. “All I’m trying to do right now is to prolong my life as long as possible. For some people that can be years, and for others it can be a couple of months.”

The Mighty Women judges praised Ricketts’ “strength and resilience,” and expressed amazement at what Ricketts is enduring while continuing to work in a demanding, high-pressure profession.

“I don’t know what I would do if I knew it was incurable… but to just keep doing what you’re doing is just next-level,” said one judge.

“Imagine going through all of that and having a career and deliverables and deadlines and things you’ve got to do, and to perform at a level worthy of keeping your job and everything else on top of it,” added another.

One judge, said that hearing Ricketts’ story provided the necessary inspiration to book her own checkup. That would no doubt please Ricketts, who has become a strong advocate for screening and testing since her diagnosis. “We’re fortunate to live in a time when cancer isn’t always a death sentence, but you have to make sure you get regular check-ups,” she said. “They’re important.”

Chris Powell