As a Texas Oncology physician, it’s my job to lend an ear to patients undergoing cancer treatment, and provide advice and support. One concern I hear from newly-diagnosed patients is whether or not they will be able to continue working while undergoing treatment. Many believe that working will allow them to maintain some sense of normalcy, while others need to work to support their families financially.
While each patient’s situation is unique, many continue working through some or all of their treatment. A cancer diagnosis affects not only the patient, but coworkers as well. However, because cancer is a very personal and sensitive issue, I recommend following a few guidelines for dealing with cancer in the workplace.
IF YOU ARE A CANCER PATIENT
As a cancer patient, your first priority should be your health. Talk with your doctor first before deciding if you should continue working. Your body will need time to heal and the side effects, both emotional and physical, can make maintaining a full workload and schedule difficult.
Next, talk to your supervisor early on to learn about your employer’s policies for assisting employees with a long-term illness, and decide on a work arrangement that works for both of you. Also, sharing your diagnosis with colleagues is a personal decision. I recommend sharing with those you trust most, as they may be willing to help and provide a support system.
IF YOU SUPERVISE SOMEONE WITH CANCER
Learning that your direct report has cancer can be alarming, but as a supervisor, your role in helping them manage their work life is vital. First, it’s important to provide support by listening to their needs and feelings, knowing that their emotions will fluctuate through the course of their treatment. Then, work with your employee to build a plan for dividing responsibilities, and consider any special needs they may have such as moving closer to the bathroom, or taking unexpected time off. Finally, take time to recognize your feelings about the situation, as this will help you cope.
IF YOUR COLLEAGUE HAS CANCER
When a colleague confides in you that he or she has been diagnosed with cancer, you may be surprised that you feel sad or resentful; however, these are normal reactions and there are ways to cope with these emotions. First and foremost, respect the fact that your co-worker trusted you enough to tell you about his or her diagnosis and allow that person to share this news with others on their own terms.
Next, if your manager redistributes responsibilities or shares a new work schedule to help accommodate your co-worker with cancer, be open to it and to stick to the new plan, which will reduce stress for all. Find ways to help out your team, like bringing in lunch, or volunteering to assist with extra projects. Know that your colleague will be experiencing a roller coaster of emotions, so don’t take it personally if that person acts in a way that’s unusual toward you. Finally, find someone who you can share your feelings about the situation. Cancer doesn’t just affect the patient – it affects nearly everyone in a patient’s life.
Alvaro Restrepo, MD
Alvaro Restrepo, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas. To learn more about exciting advancements in cancer treatment, visit www.TexasOncology.com or call 1-888-864-I CAN (4226).