A Balancing Act - Pharmaceutical Executive

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A Balancing Act
Rather than remaking herself to fit the executive suite, Meryl Zausner has remade the executive suite—and the industry—into a place that is more friendly toward women. In the process she is pioneering


Pharmaceutical Executive



David Epstein, CEO of Novartis Oncology, considers Meryl Zausner one of his closest advisors—and one of the strongest leaders at the company.
And, of course, these financial decisions have a direct impact on patients. At a recent advocacy luncheon for cancer patients, Zausner sat next to a woman who had been part of a Gleevec clinical study five years ago. Before the study, she was confined in a hospice, bloated, unable to move, and days away from dying. After getting the drug, she had a dramatic turnaround. When Zausner protested the woman's thank-yous, she insisted: "You're part of making that happen. You're part of the decision to get the money funded to do these studies."

Someone to Say 'It's Okay'

If there's anything Meryl Zausner knows, it's how cancer can change a life.

Zausner met her future husband, Stuart, when she was 19 years old. After graduating from college, they conducted a long-distance relationship for close to ten years, never breaking up, but never quite getting to the point of marriage.

"This was a brilliant guy," says Zausner. "We used to call him the socialist that liked money. He had a master's in criminal justice, and he just wanted to help criminals. He'd set up halfway houses. He was a healthcare coordinator, and all the mothers of the inmates would call him."

In 1985, when Zausner was 29, they finally married. Six months later, Stuart was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

"We were so young and nave about it," she says. "They didn't even call it cancer then. He had 'surgery.' They took out about 60 percent of it, but they couldn't get it all. He would go for radiation every day for ten weeks. You know how tiring that is? And then go to work in the afternoon."

Stuart fought against his cancer for 14 years. Zausner kept on with her career. In a period of remission in 1990, they had a son, Ethan. And then, 1997, the cancer returned stronger than ever.

While many women Zausner knew dropped out of the work force after having a baby—including all of her former accounting classmates—work continued to be important to Zausner on many levels. She had grown accustomed to throwing herself into her job when things worsened with Stuart. The cancer, and treatment, had begun to take their toll: Stuart's hair fell out, and the side effects left him bedridden. The doctors gave him six months to live.

"It was better for him that I was here working because then when I was home, I could give myself to him," says Zausner. "I never took the time off, but at least I knew I could if I needed it—and that's what you want from your employer. You worry that if you have these personal issues, that you can't really bring them forward in the workplace, that it'll inhibit your career. It doesn't take people feeling sorry for you. It just takes one or two people to say 'It's okay.'"

Stuart died in November 1999, three days before their son's ninth birthday. He was just 43.

Life wasn't easy. Meryl faced the usual problems of balancing work and family, desperately exaggerated by the fact that she and her son were now on their own. When she joined the new oncology unit in 2000, and it was time to make that first, crucial global tour, Zausner couldn't find a babysitter. She ended up leaving Ethan with an 18-year-old niece, something she still berates herself for. (See "A Letter to My Younger Self".)


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