Work & Life After Beating Cancer

How overcoming leukemia inspired Andrew Faas to dedicate his second chance to supporting medical research and ending workplace bullying through the Faas Foundation

Photo by Walter Psotka

When Andrew Faas was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, he found hope in the form of a drug fresh off of its clinical trials. Instead of going through the possible torture of chemotherapy and radiation, Faas treated his condition by taking a pill a day. Fortunately, the treatment turned his fatal condition into a chronic one. Given a second chance at life, Faas left a successful career as a retail executive to start the Faas Foundation and has since dedicated his life to paying his good fortune forward.

Before heading up the Faas Foundation, Faas was a top executive at some of the largest retailers in Canada. He spent 23 years with the Weston-Loblaw Group, where he held a number of senior executive positions, and 10 years at Shoppers Drug Mart, where he served as a managing partner.

“There was a realization that if my life were to end prematurely, my mark on the world would be insignificant,” Faas says. “The day I came to that horrible realization, I cut a deal with the Almighty: that if I were made better, I would become a better person.” So, when Faas recovered, he launched the foundation as a vehicle for his own personal, spiritual betterment as well a means to make future patients’ lives better.

Today, the Faas Foundation concentrates on supporting nonprofit organizations with a focus on health care, medical research, and education. One organization that Faas gives back to is the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF). ICRF funded the research that led to the development of Gleevac—the “miracle drug” that has kept Faas living an active life. Gleevac works by targeting harmful cancer cells directly without affecting healthy ones.

“Scientists and researchers are now confident that because of basic research, which ICRF funds, radiation and chemotherapy as we now know it will, in a matter of a few years, be a thing of the past,” Faas says. “Oncologists around the world are not able to practice without using or referring to the work done by researchers and scientists in Israel—truly a remarkable result.”

“There was a realization that if my life were to end prematurely, my mark on the world would be insignificant. The day I cam to that horrible realization, I cut a deal with the Almighty: that if I were made better, I would become a better person.”

Besides his support for ICRF, Faas is dedicated to addressing the lack of funding in basic research. “The government and big pharma do not support, to the extent they should, basic research,” Faas says. The two entities support research, he notes, but usually only after the discovery phase, when the return on investment is a better bet. “It really is up to the people and foundations to fill that void,” Faas says. “Without it, discoveries will not happen.”

Faas is also passionate about bringing the issue of workplace bullying into the spotlight. His book The Bully’s Trap was inspired by his own experiences. “Late in my career, I was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on a corrupt executive,” he says. “For over a year, I was subjected to a combination of psychological, verbal, and cyber aggression.” Private investigators were hired to find dirt on Faas. His phones were tapped. His e-mails were screened. He even received death threats. “This had a horrible physical and mental impact on me,” he notes.

According to Faas, a forthcoming Harvard study indicates that more than 120,000 deaths annually may be attributable to workplace stress, and Gallup polling has found that 63 percent of US employees are not engaged, 24 percent are actively disengaged, and 87 percent are disenchanted.

“Most leaders I speak to indicate they have zero-tolerance policies against bullying, positive engagement-survey results, and robust 360-degree feedback mechanisms,” Faas says. “I challenge them to stress-test these against reality—because if employees work in fear, leadership will not hear what they need to hear, and the policies, procedures, and feedback mechanisms are totally useless.”

Faas is currently working on a follow-up book, The 87% Solution: How Creating Psychologically Healthy Workplaces Can Save Thousands of Lives and Contribute $1.5 Trillion to the North American Economy, which builds on The Bully’s Trap and discusses how reducing bullying in the workplace can increase productivity and lead to a decrease in premature deaths. “It’s bringing it down to a level where organizations can really understand and hear what they need to hear about what’s going on in their workplace and, by making changes, dramatically improve their profitability,” Faas says.

In addition to his books, Faas and the foundation have partnered with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada as well as Mental Health America. Together they hope to develop a North American program for helping organizations create psychologically safe and healthy workplaces. “This is going to be a wonderful opportunity for a collaborative initiative,” Faas says. “Once it’s developed, we can see it being rolled out around the world.”

Ultimately, the Faas Foundation is working toward becoming a leader in creating sustainable societal and economic solutions. Ten years after Faas’s diagnosis, what sustains his commitment to philanthropy is the fulfillment he has found in effecting positive change. His wake-up call led him to his calling.