When Business is a Battle

How does a small business owner-manager cope when illness strikes? RUTH O’CONNOR meets a restaurateur who battled cancer and kept her business afloat – and thriving. Away from the bright lights of award ceremonies and the PRdriven world of glossy marketing and social media, running a business can be fraught with challenges. While entrepreneurs and business owners may appear to have it all, they are not immune to the difficulties life can throw at them. Illness, bereavement or financial difficulties can strike at the heart of even the most successful business person. Carol Walsh has run the Chameleon Restaurant in Temple Bar for the past 24 years. An award-winning Indonesian restaurant in the heart of Dublin’s busiest tourist destination, Walsh’s restaurant is known for its great food, friendly service and ambience and has been awarded accolades including The Irish Restaurant Awards Best World Cuisine award and Best Front of House and Best Chef in Leinster in the Irish Curry Awards.

Behind Walsh’s trademark sunny smile “THE SHOW HAD TO GO ON. I COULDN’T CALL IN SICK. THE RENT, WAGES AND TAXES HAD TO BE PAID.” however, life at the helm hasn’t always been easy. In 2009 she was delighted to discover she was pregnant, but discovering she had breast cancer at the end of her pregnancy would present significant challenges both personally and professionally. “I was delighted to find out I was pregnant,” says Walsh. “I was in my late forties and had almost given up hope that we would have a sibling for our then seven-year-old son Max.” During the last trimester of her pregnancy, however, she began to lose weight – something which worried her.

“THE SHOW HAD TO GO ON. I COULDN’T CALL IN SICK. THE RENT, WAGES AND TAXES HAD TO BE PAID.”

“I thought it was odd and after a visit to my GP I got a call to have a triple assessment in St James’s Hospital in week 35 of my pregnancy,” she says. Walsh was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and immediate action had to be taken as the pregnancy hormones were “feeding the tumours”.

“To say my world was falling apart is an understatement. Within two weeks of diagnosis, my lovely baby son Lochlann was delivered by C-section, two weeks later my breast was completely removed and chemotherapy treatment followed. I would be on hormone therapy for the next five years.” Walsh says that during this period, a most difficult trading time for many businesses at the height of the recession, she kept quiet about her illness. With her business partner and husband Kevin O’Toole, she put on a brave face to customers and to the world. “Restaurateurs are optimists by nature. We did not post any hairless photos on Facebook or Twitter. We kept quiet for fear it would affect business, that people would hear the “Big C” and stay away from the restaurant. The show had to go on. I couldn’t call in sick. The rent, wages and taxes had to be paid.” Walsh worked mostly from home for the first year following her diagnosis and credits her family and her husband for providing the support and strength needed to get through having breast cancer while caring for a newborn baby. When she began to feel better she joined the Plurabelle Paddlers, a dragon boat team based in Grand Canal Dock in Dublin for women diagnosed with breast cancer. To help her survive those challenging years in business, Walsh also joined the Going for Growth programme.

“Going for Growth is a community of women directors and mentors who deepdive into your business and help you survive, grow and reach your potential,” she says. “To this day we keep in touch and offer advice, help or just a chat.” Walsh credits her staff too for rallying around her at a diffi cult time: “They even told me I looked lovely in my dodgy wig,” she smiles ruefully. “I consider myself very lucky today to be alive. I cherish each new day. I love my family and have survived 24 years in business.”