Jen Nelson doesn’t have just one title, she has three; she serves as executive vice president, chief operating officer and general counsel at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. But another important title can be added to that list: she is also a cancer survivor.
As a self-proclaimed “Yooper,” Nelson attended Northern Michigan University for her undergrad and graduated from MSU Law School in 2003 with her master’s degree. Starting out in her career, she spent time in transactional work and litigation, which helped her gather a wealth of knowledge and experience and build lasting relationships that ultimately led to her becoming part of the MEDC team. Nelson has worked her way up through the organization since her start in 2005. Her career and experience helped her find her strengths and develop her passions.
“I would say that communication is one of my strengths,” she said. “I can honestly say that is what gets me up every day to come to work. For me it’s always been about people.”
Building on her passion, Nelson loves helping build teams that not only work for the betterment of the organization, but also support the betterment of the individuals who work within it.
“What I really love is being able to spend time developing people. It’s by far my passion, being in this position allows me to grow employees and engage employees,” Nelson said. “You need engaged employees. I think that is sometimes overlooked. Engaged employees that want to be here and contribute help to drive the overall goals of the organization.”
Given Nelson’s range of titles, her day-to-day duties can include tasks from human resources to administrative organization. Whatever the task may be, Nelson pours all of her energy into the moment she’s currently in.
“I manage general operations, the people and processes. I also work on finances and the budget. The entire organization, from human resources to legal, reports through me and I work to do the best I can on everything. I also have amazing teams and strong leaders that contribute to that,” said Nelson.
Nelson truly enjoys her position and could spend endless hours at the office, but she strives to find balance and make special time for family and friends. Nelson shares happily her wonderful relationship with her husband Dan of 14 years and her sweet daughter Taylor who is 7 ½ years old. She works to ensure time spent with them is focused on making the most of every moment.
“Wherever I am, I am committed to it. When I am home with family I stay in that moment. I make sure to keep myself in check. I make spending time together a priority and focus on what I am doing with them because everything else can wait,” Nelson said.
Nelson has always had a positive outlook on life and a dedication to spending time with family, including setting aside date nights and time with her daughter. That outlook was only cemented in 2013 when she was diagnosed with triple negative invasive carcinoma, a form of breast cancer.
Nelson conducted her regular breast self-examination at home and knew that something wasn’t right. As someone who leads a healthy lifestyle and listens to her body’s signals, she made an appointment with her doctor and was diagnosed shortly thereafter.
“I remember when I got the diagnosis. It was Dec. 11 and my husband was with me, and I knew she was going to say it was cancer. You just get this feeling in your gut. I thought, ‘This is fine. We can handle this,’ then she used the word aggressive and my world fell apart,” Nelson said. “The next couple weeks, all I wanted was answers. That is how I work through things; I try to find answers. Waiting was one of the most difficult times.”
Nelson and her family received a second opinion and the results were the same. Nelson was treated at Sparrow Hospital, which allowed her and her family to stay close to home. Because breast cancer did not run in Nelson’s family, they ran a genetic test to help uncover future risk and guide her in her recovery and treatment.
“Waiting for treatment to start was pretty heart-wrenching. I started chemo treatment on January. 7, 2014. They wanted to test me for the genetic mutation that could also provide some guidance on future procedures like a double mastectomy. It was a lot to take in, but my first day of treatment was 17 years to the day that my mom had passed from brain cancer. Knowing that gave me an extra boost to beat this,” Nelson said.
Based on the test results and her treatment, Nelson underwent several additional procedures including a double mastectomy. On May 20, 2014, Nelson met with doctors and received the best
“I was meeting with the doctors and they pulled up the report that the chemo had killed everything and I had no cancer in my body; there was zero cancer. That was the best position I could be in. It was really exciting to hear those words.”
Nelson’s journey wasn’t easy and she recalls the physical and emotional toll each procedure took on her. As a naturally energetic person, Nelson found the drain and exhaustion frustrating, but she had dear friends and family by her side to help her and her family through it all.
“I had an amazing team at work that kept things going,” Nelson said. “My mother-in-law was amazing too. Not only is she the best mother-in-law and grandma, she is someone who will give anything to help. She lived with us and helped out tremendously with Taylor.”
Nelson also recalls a valuable lesson she learned from a dear friend. Even while undergoing enormous personal challenges, Nelson makes a point to praise those around her — a focus on the good that comes from each experience.
“My friend Terri Fitzpatrick is amazing in a professional sense. She is a powerful professional and offers constant encouragement. She definitely helped. I learned a really important lesson from her,” Nelson said. “She taught me that doing what you’re best at to help is the best thing you can do. Instead of telling someone ‘if there is anything I can do, let me know,’ Terri would just do it. She would make meals for us and never ask to help, she just would do it.”
Nelson took away not only life lessons, but also a fresh perspective on her already positive outlook.
“I hit the reset button. I do yoga a few times a week and got back into my activities. I spend extra time with my husband and daughter and we make a lot of time for our friends. I enjoy doing things that are impactful and focus on where I need to spend my energy. I think about it every single day. I think a lot of us are so stuck in thinking about what is next,” Nelson said. “I just try to enjoy the moment I am in completely.”