Aaron Houghton

From Standing on Peaks to Battling Cancer

Aaron Houghton
From Standing on Peaks to Battling Cancer

From Standing on Peaks to Battling Cancer is the fourth post in a five-part series about my roots as an entrepreneur. The other parts are:

When I was 12, my family moved from Arkansas to North Carolina without buying a house, or even renting one. In fact, we planned to camp in national parks even after my parents started their new jobs. I wouldn’t say I come from a family of risk-takers—we just really like adventure.

Many years later, after I’d built my company to 150+ employees, I found myself really craving an adventure, a risk outside the confines of our now established venture in Morrisville, NC. I read a book that year called No Shortcuts to the Top, and saw the stamina and perseverance required for a mountaineering career as an analogy for the long haul of running a startup.

So naturally, I started planning an expedition to Mount Everest. I started like I would any new business, by rallying friends from around the country I thought capable of making the journey. I researched Nepal and the routes to take, planned the logistics and then collaborated on the packing lists with team members. When it came time to book the flights, I had a medical consult to be sure it was safe to ascend 19,000 feet on foot.

While my doctor noticed a small lump on my neck and inquired if I’d had a cold, he said to go ahead with the journey.

And so from May 4 to June 6, 2009, I climbed to base camp at Mount Everest. I could write several additional blog posts about the experience, but I’ll skip to the end of the journey for now.

When I got home, the lump had grown significantly. I was at the beach with my family showing them this weird thing on my neck, when my mother turned white. Her father and brother has both suffered and died from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a disease often characterized by the swelling of lymph nodes in the neck.

I immediately called the doctor and demanded a biopsy. Sure enough, it was cancer. Thyroid cancer.

Even though my prognosis was good, I was stunned. I was 28 years old. Nothing I’d done in my life carried with it a 7 percent chance of death.

My surgery at UNC took 10 hours—cutting from one ear to the front of my collarbone to the other ear, doctors removed my Thyroid and 45 lymph nodes, 33 of which were cancerous. Turns out the iodine pills I used to purify the seven liters of water I drank each day on Everest made the cancer grow faster.

The recovery was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever had. For two months with no thyroid or replacement hormone, I was basically in a fog. I also had to avoid iodine, meaning a very strange diet. And for the next year or so, I really beat myself up, with self loathing, negativity and a sense that I shouldn’t have let this happen. I probably should have seen a therapist, but through a lot of support from friends and family I eventually snapped out of it.

There were a couple of silver linings in the whole experience.

iContact didn’t miss a beat while I was in the hardest battle of my life. The company had its best quarter ever, which gave me confidence we had the right team in place.

And for me personally, it showed the importance of putting my own health before my business. I eventually put new routines and disciplines in place, a way I’ve come to check my own stress levels.

That became really helpful during the next chapter of iContact, when acquisition offers started flooding in and the competitive landscape began to shift.

The next and last story in this five-part series is Businesses Come and Go. I'm Always an Entrepreneur.