When Cancer Hits the Workplace
Honestly, it was with dread yesterday afternoon that I entered the front lobby of the hospice, which is situated on Lake Erie and offers a beautiful view and a certain calmness that the lake exudes. My friend was having some immediate stomach issues, but otherwise was being a real trooper. We even took a walk to the meditation room which overlooks the lake.
We talked about how lovely the crocheted blankets were that my friend was given after he became cold. These blankets are lovingly crocheted by volunteers, and my friend was very touched that folks can be so generous with their time and efforts for complete strangers.
That got us to talking about how cancer can be a defining moment for friendships or any type of relationship including work relationships. I am a cancer survivor, and while I experienced a tremendous outpouring of love and support from friends and colleagues, others – afraid of their own mortality and not clearly recognizing that someone else’s cancer makes them uncomfortable – pulled back. I noticed who they were and I cannot say it did not greatly disappoint me. However, those who rallied around me were greater than those who didn’t, and I thrived with their encouragement and support.
My colleagues at the PR agency I worked at were so supportive. I chose to work during my six months of chemo and radiation, and our management team provided me with the flexibility I needed. I worked when I could and when I couldn’t, I rested.
I chose to work because I believed it provided me with a distraction that would help me cope better with my illness. It did. I know that not everyone can or wants to work during treatment, but it helped me keep a routine and not feel “sick.” However, I was very nervous of letting my peers down and not being able to keep up my usual pace.
My staff and colleagues picked up the slack for me and that meant more than I could ever express. While a few people actually were resentful of having more work on their plates, the majority was more than willing to pitch in. My boss and a number of colleagues came to visit me during chemo sessions while another colleague provided me with nutritional supplements and meditation books. Others sent flowers, balloons and cards with messages of encouragement. One peer made a client trip to Arizona in my place since I was unable to travel. This outpouring of kindness and support made me so happy and proud to work where I did.
I realize there can be awkwardness to being around and communicating with someone with cancer. Believe it or not, some people wouldn’t ever make eye contact with me and I felt at times like a leper. I get it. People worry they will say the wrong things. I’m sure I have. But to me, it mattered less when they did say the wrong thing and more that they were willing to put aside their own anxieties and say anything at all to me.
It is difficult today to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched in some way by cancer. I will gladly take on more work for a colleague who is struggling with a life-threatening illness because I would want someone to do that for me – or for my brother, mother, cousin or nephew.
My advice is to just do what you can. Whether that’s as big as taking on one of their accounts for the time being, or as small as sending an uplifting email. Don’t avoid them because you are worried about saying the wrong thing – even small talk is greatly appreciated.
You needn’t be Mother Theresa sitting a bedside vigil. But, for those of you who are uncomfortable around “sick” people or hospitals and avoid your friend or peer because of that, my harsh suggestion is to suck it up – it’s a fear that stems from one’s own issues and the sick person shouldn’t be punished for it. Cancer is sadly becoming more prevalent in our society, so unfortunately you’re going to have to deal with it sooner than later. More importantly, your colleague will appreciate your demonstrative support more than you could imagine. I also think you’ll feel better too.
Today my friend asked me to bring him Hawaiian punch, even though he can only drink an inch of it. I’ll take it to him and hopefully he’ll feel well enough to sit in the sun along the lake.