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My Friendship With Edie Sundby

Lifelong lessons learned from my first mentor

I always knew that Edie Littlefield Sundby would do something extraordinary. I never guessed, however, just how extraordinary that thing would be.

When we met, Edie was a stunning, high-intensity 26-year-old IBM marketing representative in Moline, Ill. I'd just moved to Moline to take my first job out of college, as an IBM trainee. I knew nothing about computers, even less about Illinois, and I was scared — and homesick.

Edie and her husband, Dale, who was also in IBM sales, graciously welcomed me into their home, hosting me for a couple of weeks while I searched for an apartment. I was in awe of Edie, with her beautiful house, handsome husband, stylish wardrobe and thriving career. Though she barely knew me, she acted like a protective older sister, offering wisdom, moral support — and food. I remember awakening one cold October morning to find Edie with eggs and bacon on a tray, home cooked and elegantly served. I never forgot her hospitality. And I knew she was programmed for greatness.

So it came as no surprise when I Googled Edie, one evening in early July, and her name popped right up. I assumed she had become the first woman CEO of something. Instead, I found her blog on the New York Times website, which began: "In cancer parlance I am known as an 'outlier.' What that means is cancer should have ended my life years ago."

Whoa. I had to read the blog twice for the words to fully sink in.

In 2007, Edie was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer, which had spread to her liver and lungs. She was given three months to live.

Within hours of my sending Edie a Twitter invitation, she responded through LinkedIn, and I thanked her, 35 years later, for happily launching my postcollege life. "Aw, I don't remember being so nice," she wrote back. "[But] I realized how scary and lonely that first job is .… I wanted you to feel good because you and I were the only female marketing representatives in [that office] and we needed each other." She concluded by saying: "Your impulse to reach out to me has a reason. The path toward illumination sometimes leads to surprising journeys."

I decided to share Edie's remarkable journey with you, in print and on video, not because of her ongoing battle to beat death but because of what she has shown me — twice now — about how to fully engage in life. All these years later, my first mentor, Edie Sundby, is still teaching me lessons, and I am grateful.

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