When cancer visits your workplace

Let’s talk about cancer in the workplace.  No, not a toxic culture at your workplace.  And no, not concrete cancer.  We’re talking about real cancer.  Life-threatening cancer.  But, first, let’s consider an analogy….

You might be the safest driver in the world.  You’ve done every road safety course; you’re a defensive driver on the road; you know all the road rules inside out; and you’ve never had an accident in your life.  You are, by every definition, a model driver and in the lowest risk category.  But none of that matters or will make any difference to you when one day, unexpectedly, someone else drives through a red light at an intersection and smashes into you….causing you horrific injuries and endangering your life as you lie in hospital dealing with the fallout.

This is exactly what cancer can be like.  You can be the healthiest person; do all the right things; watch what you eat and drink; exercise well; and never smoke.  You can be young and full of life.  And yet one day, unexpectedly, after a growing list of unusual symptoms, you suddenly get diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

It happens to individuals every day, and it impacts the workplaces they’re in and the organisations they work for.  If your office or workplace is large enough with enough workers then, statistically, there’s a good chance cancer – in any of its many forms – will impact your workplace:  In Australia, one in three men and one in four women will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 75, and rates of diagnosis in people under the age of 50 are rapidly increasing.

For the individual concerned, the shock, fear, anxiety and despair can’t be put into words.  The battle they’re about to embark on is highly individual and everyone’s journey will be unique and different.  For the co-workers, managers, and employers, it’s crucial to appreciate what’s going on, and knowing how/where/when to chip in.  As awkward as it can be to talk about, let’s discuss a few important aspects…


It’s unique.

Unless cancer touches you directly, you’re probably not aware (quite justifiably) of all its distinctions and idiosyncrasies, nor the many varied and different ways it’s treated.  It’s easy and tempting to lump it all into one boat, or to assume that because your Aunty Joan survived myeloma, your young and fit co-worker should easily cope with their case of colon cancer.  It’s a cliché but it’s true:  Cancer doesn’t discriminate.  Each cancer patient’s journey and prognosis will be highly individual and unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all or uniform approach.  Different cancers are treated differently; even patients with the same disease may be treated differently according to their age and level of fitness/health.  Every patient will have their individual issues, their own prognosis, their own treatment, and certainly their own way of dealing with their plight.  If one of your work colleagues shares that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer and they’re about to undergo treatment, one of the first things you can do to give your support is to assume nothing.  If your work colleague shares the specifics of their diagnosis with you, be careful not to assume outcomes, assume how they’ll handle their situation, or to just skim the headlines about their illness on Google.  Your colleague’s exact circumstances will likely be different and far more complex than the bullet-point summaries you can find on the internet.

For example, the chemotherapy protocols and treatments for a 40 year old patient with lymphoma will be very different to that of a 65 year old with the same disease.  You can’t even pigeonhole or generalise cancers that are seemingly in the same category.  Non-Hodgkins lymphoma is again a good example:  Not only are there different types (e.g. B-cell and T-cell disease), but there are many different sub-types within each of those two categories – each with their own different set of survival rates.  Which means the prognosis (that is, odds of survival) for a patient with one sub-type is very different for a patient with a different sub-type.  Again, be wary of skimming the headlines.


Your colleague’s response

For the individual who’s just been told they have cancer, there is no “textbook” way to respond or to deal with the news.  There is no “right way” or “wrong way”.  There is only their way, and it just is.  Cancer patients encompass the full spectrum of humanity’s personalities:  There will be optimists, pessimists, realists, defeatists, pragmatists, denialists, and every other “…ist” you can think of.  Some will adopt a victim-mentality and all that that entails; others will assume a winner’s stance before they even start their treatment.  The jury is still out as to whether either extreme mental position has much of a tangible impact on the final outcome, although there’s no doubting a positive attitude can help with the routine and dramas of treatment.

Cancer in the workplace - positive attitude
A positive attitude goes a long way…


However, if there’s one thing cancer gives you, it’s perspective.  Faced with their mortality, many cancer patients will view their job and their workplace through a different lens.  Relationships, family, and personal needs are thrust up the scale; work will usually suddenly seem very insignificant in the grand scheme of things – particularly if the prognosis is not promising.  But for those with a more favourable prognosis or an attitude of “I’ll beat this in six months and then get on with my career”, maintaining employment through or around cancer becomes part of their journey and their battle.  Working whilst undergoing their treatment can become a powerful weapon for good, particularly in the context of a patient’s mental health.

As such, their mental approach and attitude will have a strong bearing on their capacity and willingness to continue to work whilst undergoing treatment.  But only if – and this is important – their treatment, health, and personal circumstances permit them to continue to work whilst undergoing treatment.


Working through cancer

Can your colleague work through cancer? Should they work through cancer?

Regardless of their diagnosis and odds of survival, many patients will feel they need to work whilst undergoing treatment.  Not everyone has the foresight or inclination to take out income protection insurance, and any accrued sick leave will disappear very quickly.  The bills don’t stop coming in just because you’re sick.  If they’re the breadwinner in the household, or they need their job to keep a roof over their head, there will be pressure to continue earning an income.

Notwithstanding the financial angle, many patients will want to work during their treatment.  It can be a welcome distraction from the doom and gloom; it can provide a sense of normality; it can give a sense of purpose.

However, in spite of the preceding paragraphs, there will be many instances where it simply isn’t possible to continue working through treatment.  Some of the more brutal chemotherapy regimens will prevent patients from carrying out their duties, roles, and responsibilities – either physically or mentally.  (Usually both!)   Doctors may recommend – or simply instruct – that working won’t be possible.   Fatigue, being severely immuno-compromised, surgeries, constant nausea, or high-intensity treatment will likely require many patients to scale back their workload or stop working altogether.

In many cases, the main hurdle to working will simply be absence.  Depending on the specific disease and the treatment, patients could be required to spend significant periods of time at the hospital – either long hours in the chemotherapy chair; hours/days undergoing all manner of tests, scans, and follow-ups; or simply be stuck in bed recovering from surgery.  The various medical appointments can seem non-stop and endless.  If you’re a site engineer or an engineer required to undertake physical inspections in the field, it’s likely something will have to give.


Chemotherapy ward
In a post-COVID world with virtual meetings and WFH facilities, it’s possible to be an engineer from the chemotherapy ward!


Admittedly, the landscape has changed a little in the post-COVID world of working from home.  If your colleague’s role as an engineer is more computer-based and aspects of it can be done on a laptop whilst sitting up in bed or in the chemo ward, then they may be able to plough on.


What can you do?

How do you support a work colleague who’s undergoing treatment for cancer?  As we stated earlier, the first step is to assume nothing.  Don’t assume they’re not up for it.  Don’t assume what they may want or not want to do.  Don’t assume they’ll want a break or want to be relieved of some of their tasks.  You’ll need to read the play, read their signals, and respond accordingly.  Some will welcome a hug; others will prefer that nothing’s said and will prefer to ignore the elephant in the room.  Some will want their space; conversely, others may lean in to you.  Empathy has many forms, and the workplace can often form part of a patient’s support network.

If you’re an employer or manager and you have a staff member struggling to juggle their work with cancer, the other thing to be mindful of is that it’s rarely helpful to skirt around the issues.  There is little to be gained in sugar-coating the realities or avoiding the awkward conversations.  By the time you’re aware that your colleague or employee is gravely ill, that person will already have had the most awkward and confronting conversation of their life with their doctor.  It’s likely they’ve also already had an incredibly challenging conversation with their partner or family, particularly if they’ve got kids and had to tell their children about what may be coming.  Compared with those two discussions, any conversation they have with you in the context of work will be a comparative breeze for them!  Ultimately, honesty in conversations will be both valued and appreciated.

Cancer in the office - honest meeting
The conversations can be difficult and awkward, but honesty is important.

For the most part, engineers are pragmatists.  In the context of an engineering office, the work still has to be done.  The analyses and designs still need to be carried out; the drawings or reports need to be completed; the documentation has to get out the door; and the site inspections need to be undertaken.  If you can cover your colleague’s absences and re-distribute the workload without undue duress to the rest of the team, it’s one less stress for your colleague to worry about.

Of course, employment is a two-way street.  The employer provides the work opportunity and pays a salary; the employee has to undertake the roles and responsibilities, meet the KPI’s, and achieve the deliverables.  Working through cancer treatment may likely mean an adjustment on either side of the equation.  Again, have honest conversations.


The long and winding road back

Given the diverse nature of cancers, treatments, and patient outcomes – both short and long term – it’s difficult to make general statements here but, chances are, if/when your work colleague tells you they’ve finished treatment and can return to work full-time…know that most cancer survivors never finish treatment!   For many, there will always be ongoing check-ups, long-term follow-ups, and lingering issues.  Many survivors will carry short-term or long-term scars – mentally and/or physically.  They may suffer long-term side-effects from chemotherapy (anyone for chemobrain ?); they may encounter fatigue more readily; they may have certain physical needs (particularly if drastic surgery was part of the treatment); they may have a changed demeanour and outlook on things – maybe for worse, maybe for the better!  Or…they may just be 100% exactly as they were before diagnosis, and nothing’s changed!  Again….don’t assume one way or the other.  Just be prepared to roll with the punches.  But remember this: You’re dealing with someone who’s possibly been given low odds; stared death in the face; dealt with all that entails; undergone horrific medical treatment; and come out the other side.  Don’t be surprised if they have a new zest for life and a zeal for the workplace!


PS:  Here’s a strong tip:  Take out income protection insurance, regardless of how young, fit, and healthy you think you are!

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