Cancer is a Journey: How to deal when coworkers are receiving cancer treatment

Published: September 18, 2012 Author: Clearpoint Tags: Manager's Corner, Working and Workplaces

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Over the last few years I've learned more and more about cancer treatment, what it means for friends, families, and coworkers.  I've had several close friends and family members who have had their lives transformed by cancer. Some are continuing the journey, and for others it has already ended. It seems these days that almost everyone I know knows someone by 1st degree of separation who is or has dealt with cancer. While I'm certainly not an expert, I have learned a lot over the past 5-10 years about how to be a supportive co-worker, friend, niece, granddaughter.

If you have a friend or coworker who is in enduring cancer treatment currently, I hope some of this food for thought might help comfort you all during this life change. I have included some (4) friends' quotes that I feel illustrate some of what I have learned about dealing with cancer in the workplace. This is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all list, but just  a few stories that I thought would be useful to share.

One friend certainly enlightened me,  when we were having lunch one day and I mentioned "her battle with cancer" and she said she "always hated that word battle, it was just so negative and doomsday sounding," and that really journey was a better description for what she was going through. Her comment set the tone for much of my research and thought process for this article.

Truths From Coworkers with Cancer

"Hey People, I'm not dead!"

Many people going through cancer treatment want to keep as close to their normal routine as possible. In many cases, when they have just come off of chemo treatment and had a few days of feeling like dirt - what they want most is to get back to their usual routine. Believe it or not, there is a lot of comfort in that.

One friend said that she was surprised when her colleagues stopped including her in meetings that she was normally a part of. Sure we can rationalize this by thinking, perhaps they didn't want to put her out or burden her with something so they ASSUMED this was the right thing to do - but it was wrong. Keep including your coworkers. If they are out of the office with treatment, don't assume, ask! In this case she said "hey if I am at home recovering from treatment, I'll dial in if I can," and "if the meeting is critical for in-person then I'll let you know so we can schedule it when I can be in the office."

Another friend said, "While recovering I was exhausted and didn't do much, but could still check e-mail. This helped me feel connected and like I knew what was going on and that I was in the loop. When I returned I wanted to still be cc'ed on all the e-mails that I was normally included on."

"Not that it was inappropriate, but the coworkers who would look me in the eye like I had one foot in the grave and hold my hand and let me know that they would help my family in any way they could - kinda freaked me out.  "I'm not dead" was exactly how I felt in that moment. When you are fighting through an illness, you have to muster up a kind of courage that you never knew you had.  One that God gives you to get through those times. When coworkers approached me that way, it took the wind out of my sails."

"I want to know what is going on [at work].Give me hard things to work on and ask me hard questions. Just because I am going through this doesn't mean that my brain melted and I no longer can contribute in big ways."

"Drop the kid gloves but don't ignore me either!"

People's bodies may be fragile during cancer treatment but their minds, hearts, and emotions are in full force!  The cards, well wishes, and visits to the hospital are really encouraging and appreciated.  However, they want to be treated as normally as possible. Finding that happy medium of being caring and concerned while not being over-the-top about it is important. Additionally, guess what, they don't want to talk about their illness 100% of the time, they want to hear what's going on with YOU!

"I was employed by another company at the time.  One of my co-workers from my former company came to see me in the hospital. But no one from the company I had been currently employed with came to see me. "

"Honestly, the best comments were the ones that made light of the situation - I had a friend who told me that I was going to grow a larger brain because my head didn't have to worry about growing hair!  I also had another coworker that I went to lunch with one day - we sat down and he said, "Ok, I know you are going through a lot. I know that, but let me tell you about my crap. He proceeded to tell me about his life and what was going on and didn't obsess about me and my illness. It made me feel like I wasn't on an island dealing with the hardest thing ever.  Everyone has stuff."

"For me, I really wanted people to remember that my journey was more than just my illness.  I was the same person and had a million other things going on with family, children, work, life - cancer was a part of it but it wasn't the ONLY thing.  It helped me to know that everyone remembered that I was still me and asked about other things and treated me the same way they used to."

"It takes a village. And we don't walk in other peoples shoes!"

The old adages hold true in cancer scenarios too.  There is a good chance that your friend, coworker, neighbor is getting lots of help during this journey.  Keep in mind that the spouse or other primary and secondary caregivers are working side-by-side with the patient. Aside from the emotional and mental exhaustion comes physical exhaustion by providing personal care to their loved ones all while maintaining their other responsibilities. A friend told me this story of what happened to her mom one day while my friend's father was undergoing cancer treatment:

"Imagine her shock the day that she rode the twenty something floors up to her office with a coworker, who began criticizing her for her coming in late to work several days a month (she was late due to providing the transportation to the hospital where my dad received his inpatient chemo treatments). Let me make it clear that my mom's work schedule in no way impacted this woman's job duties or responsibilities. However, the woman still felt that she had the right to upbraid a coworker about whose personal situation she knew nothing. So whether it is cancer, pregnancy, divorce, death of a loved one, or some other issue, I think it is critical to remember that we don't walk in other people's shoes."

"Been there, done that, got the orange ball"- NOT!

Anybody else remember the good old days of Putt Putt Golf where the highly coveted orange golf ball was awarded if you got a hole in one? Many have come to use the "been there, done that" phrase with this in mind, or perhaps a variation "got the t-shirt" or something of that sort.

I mistakenly thought that's what it was like to be a cancer survivor - been there, done that, beat cancer. WRONG. It was only after a dear friend had a 2nd scare that it clicked for me that cancer patients are cancer patients for life. So while my friend had been cancer free for 5 years, she had another bend in the road during her journey, as many do.

What happens after treatment is important too. Typically cancer patients continue to have a regular testing, new lifestyles including dietary changes (many opt for vegetarian and organic), and even if their initial treatment has concluded they are facing lifestyle changes.

If you or a co-worker knows what it's like to maintain a career and work relationship while going through treatment for a serious illness, share your story. The more coping strategies we can all learn, the better we can support our colleagues on their journey.

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