Cancer, Privilege, and the End of My Time with Bolt

This is a blog post I never expected to write. These past 12 months have shown me how even the most unfair, difficult situations in life can inspire immense moments of joy and deep, meaningful change.

Mar 21 · 5 min read

That beautiful woman up there is Grace. Some of you may know her from her work at LinkedIn, Crunchbase, The Dinner Party, Reimagine, and now 10% Happier. I happen to have the deep privilege of calling her my partner (the in-life-kind, rather than the VC-kind).

Cancer

One year ago Grace traveled to Ecuador to help a friend with pre-production on a humanitarian documentary project, when she began to have gnarly gastrointestinal symptoms. Back stateside, our doctor suggested it was a bit of the usual travelers’ upset stomach and she should slam down a few days’ worth of antibiotics. No big deal. As days passed, the upset stomach got worse and the symptoms seemed less and less related to bad food. A week later a gastroenterologist agreed, and decided Grace needed a CT scan right away. Early the next morning, she got that call that no one ever wants to get: she was told she had a large mass on one of her ovaries and she should come in for an emergency consultation with a surgical oncologist later that day.

Grace called me in tears immediately after hearing the news. I would be home right away, I said. Everything would be okay, I assured her. Stuck at a red light on Market Street on my way home from the office, I remember vividly the cold, rainy San Francisco morning and my white-knuckled hands on the steering wheel. I shouldn’t have said everything would be okay. I had a weird feeling that everything was about to change. Why do these things always happen on rainy days, I remember asking myself.

Over the next few hours, we would learn how world-class surgical oncologists act (cockily), how our healthcare system handles people waiting to know if they have cancer or not (extremely poorly), what it’s like to have your surgeon tell you he’s going to cancel his next two surgeries to fit you in immediately (terrifying), and how without any form of training or instruction, two people who love each other deeply can get through anything (truly).

Grace had surgery on March 19, 2018. Unfortunately, the procedure confirmed she had stage 3C epithelial ovarian cancer (the most deadly gynecological cancer we humans are saddled with). But nearly everything else was good news:

  • Nearly all traces of cancer tissue were surgically removed (known as “optimally debulked” which is possibly the single most awful term in the entire medical lexicon)
  • Her inguinal lymph nodes (ones in the pelvis) were uninfected (most cancers use the lymphatic system to spread to other organs)
  • She’s one of the youngest patients (30) the surgeon had ever treated for ovarian cancer, and being young is the single best predictor of a good prognosis (the average age for an ovarian cancer diagnosis is 63)
  • The Bay Area is home to not one but two top five cancer centers in the world
  • We had good health insurance, and thanks to an amazing community of people, we could both take the time we needed to heal

Privilege

I am an upper-middle class mostly-straight white guy living in San Francisco. I’m the 1%. I’m acutely aware of the immense privilege I live with every day by having a roof over my head and a job that brings me joy. I do my very best to understand how my privilege shapes my experience in the world, and try to keep my eyes as open as humanly possible. But until my life changed so dramatically that rainy March morning, I didn’t appreciate an aspect of privilege that matters most: the privilege of being with someone facing her own mortality the way Grace faces hers.

We modern westerners suck at dealing with death. As we increasingly relegate religion to the outskirts of society, so goes with it the community, mental frameworks, and honor for the end of life. Our medical system is abysmal at supporting people with terminal illnesses. We view death as a disease that needs curing rather than a beautifully challenging part of life that brings meaning and closeness.

Prior to meeting Grace, I squarely fell into the “I’m-all-set-without-death” category. Given a terminal diagnosis, I would have spent all my time arming myself with medical ammunition to keep death at bay and not accepting the inevitable. Grace instead:

The fact that one human being can give all of these gifts while simultaneously going through a terminal cancer diagnosis and treatment leaves me without words. I can say only one thing with certainty: the greatest privilege I enjoy is to go through the experience of confronting death (and of relishing life) with Grace.

The End of My Time with Bolt

Through this gut-wrenching experience, the things I enjoy doing and that give me energy are clearer than ever: I am a builder. My life revolves around the process of creating new things; from hardware products and companies to relationships and community, my life’s work is to build. Sadly, my time for building new things with Bolt has come to an end.

I wish I could say leaving Bolt was my decision and tie a neat little bow on everything, but alas some things aren’t so simple. Around the same time that Grace’s cancer recurred and we began chemo anew, my former partners informed me they believe I cannot devote the time necessary to care for Grace while being a valuable contributor to Bolt. Just as there are many silver linings with watching those you love boldly and beautifully face their own mortality, there is a silver lining to seeing the true colors of those you work with most closely when life throws you a giant curve ball.

The Bolt staff, LPs, and founders have been incredibly kind during this challenging time, and I deeply appreciate their understanding the difficult position this puts us all in. It’s truly an honor to have such a compassionate community of humans. Thank you.

I am not sure where the next few months will take Grace and me on this roller coaster of health, but I deeply trust in our ability to get through it together. I’m excited to focus on things that give me energy, while continuing to support Grace as best I can. As always, if you’re an early stage hardware company and could use a friendly ear, feel free to send me a note! And be on the lookout for a new thing or two from this builder. 🏗️

Ben Einstein

Written by

Product designer and lover of hardware. EIR @EclipseVentures. Previously founded @BoltVC.

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