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This Is What Happens When Your Co-Founder Gets Cancer

Erin Bagwell and Komal Minhas, co-founders of Dream, Girl.Erin Bagwell and Komal Minhas, co-founders of Dream, Girl.
Erin Bagwell and Komal Minhas, co-founders of Dream, Girl.Courtesy of Erin Bagwell

Three months ago, my co-founder Komal called to tell me about a doctor’s appointment she had for some routine bloodwork. Since she is Canadian, she goes home periodically to Ottawa to do health stuff. Her tone was upbeat and normal, so I didn’t think much of it. In fact, she was almost exuding a glossy sense of positivity, so I thought something was up. Maybe she was pregnant. Then the word “cancer” came out of her mouth.

“What?”

“Cancer!” She said again in her forced and cheery disposition. She wasn’t crying or upset.

Komal and I worked together remotely for 15 months, so usually I can read her over-the-phone language like a book. I know what she is saying when she isn’t saying it. Running a company together has fused an unbreakable bond between us, and even though we haven’t known each other for long, she feels like a sister to me.

Cancer.

I took her lead and didn’t get overly emotional on the phone. She seemed to be in this place of denial and positivity, so I let her lead the conversation. We talked a bit more, and when our call ended, I immediately broke down. I called my husband. No answer. I called my friend Ashley and I just cried over the phone to her. The rest of the day felt like some weird dream that I couldn’t wake up from. How could this happen? How did this happen? Was this real life?

Over the next few weeks, emotions came in waves. Fear. Sadness. Anger. I was overwhelmed. We were in the midst of finishing our first documentary film—Dream, Girl—and the pressure was suffocating. We were supposed to premiere the film at the White House in two months and it wasn’t complete. There was a seemingly endless list of work that still had to be done for the film, and we were in the throes of planning our premiere event in New York City. To say we were taking on too much was an understatement—I worried about not having Komal there 100%.

We decided not to make any big moves, to assess each day as it came. However, because of our lack of a plan, things started to fall through the cracks. Komal and I both struggled to figure out how to run our business with her new disease eating away the majority of her time and energy.

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When she returned from Canada back to the States, I felt like a shift inside her had taken place. It seemed to me that our business and our dream of producing this movie was not longer a vocation for her, but a job—something that passed the time, but that didn’t carry the same weight in her heart that it used to. And she was always tired. After working for a couple of hours, her eyes would gloss over. I would send her home early feeling both sad and frustrated. Something that had bonded us so deeply felt like it no longer existed, and I had a deep fear that things between us might never be the same.

Before her cancer, Komal and I could spend hours, days, weeks talking nonstop about Dream, Girl. About our goals and dreams and the things we wanted to build together. We couldn’t really have a conversation without bringing the company up, and all of a sudden that invisible thread that connected us had been cut. Our partnership felt broken, and I was angry with her for allowing the cancer to create this divide between us.

At the same time, I felt guilty for feeling this way and for not being able to truly understand what she was going through. I couldn’t imagine how draining it must have felt for her to be fighting this disease in a new city away from her family. My heart ached and felt angry with her at the same time. Why couldn’t this just go away? Why couldn’t things go back to the way they were?

A few months prior, before Komal’s diagnosis, we had gone to lunch in SoHo after a meeting. After lunch, I broke down into tears and told her I was exhausted. I said I couldn’t handle the stress and pressure of planning the White House event without having the film finished. I felt sick and drained all the time. But after Komal told me she had cancer, that all took a backseat and I went into survival mode. I finished the film, doing both my job and hers. I get everything ready for our launch at the White House. I was exhausted before; now I felt like some kind of sleep deprived mystic.

Komal eventually underwent surgery that miraculously removed all the cancer from her body, and we premiered the film both at the White House and the iconic Paris Theater in New York City. Both were days I know we will never forget, but this week in the office something more important happened.

It’s been about two months weeks since Komal’s surgery and I’m starting to see her again: The fierce and intensely passionate woman I asked to be my co-founder. The badass Indo-Canadian that convinced an oil tycoon to be in our film over the phone. The sister with whom I can share my wild dreams and desires with, who sees me so completely.

In two weeks, Komal goes back into surgery as a precautionary measure to remove the last bits of cancer that could potentially be in her body. During that time, I will use my sleep deprived mystic powers to jump over hold any hurdles that come our way, with the knowledge that the thread that connects isn’t cut at all, but is only getting stronger.

Erin Bagwell and Komal Minhas are the producers of the Dream, Girl documentary and the founders of Dream, Girl LLC, a company with the mission to celebrate the female economy through innovative storytelling, distribution, and marketing.