Alberta Cancer Foundation

Boss, I've got cancer

workplace cancer
OFFICE STRATEGY: The best policy is to be upfront with your boss about a cancer diagnosis. From there, you can determine whether it’s appropriate to tell co-workers, too.

A month before she was to start a new job as director of community leadership at ATB Financial in 2008, Sandra Huculak learned she had breast cancer. When she called her boss and broke the news, there was silence at the other end of the phone.

Then her boss, Peggy Garritty, spoke up and went into proactive mode. Within an hour, Huculak had an appointment with ATB’s human resources department to learn about her benefits. Her first day on the job was a week later, and an email address was waiting so she could get to work immediately.

The diagnosis meant that Huculak didn’t have the luxury of easing into her new position: a week and a half after starting work she had surgery, followed by five weeks sick leave to recuperate. After that came months of treatment, during which she worked from seven in the morning until noon every day, and then took a week off after each round of chemo.

Huculak returned to work full time nearly seven months after her first day. But even if you’ve had the same job for decades, cancer can, and does, cause upheaval in the workplace, and not just for the one undergoing treatment.

“[Colleagues and supervisors] have to understand what the person with the diagnosis is going through, and that can be shock, fear, loneliness, guilt, sadness, hopelessness,” says Michael Kennedy, national director of business development for Shepell-fgi, which provides human resources counseling services to workers at 6,000 organizations across Canada.

Most people consider cancer to be a two-step process: diagnosis and treatment. Kennedy describes it as a five-phase process that starts even before the diagnosis, during the period when you suspect a problem and undergo tests. The diagnosis and learning about treatment constitute the second, or acute, phase. The chronic phase involves coping with daily life while dealing with the mental, emotional and financial effects of the treatment. Recovery, the fourth phase, “hopefully ends the process,” Kennedy says, “but the fifth would be a terminal phase where the focus turns from providing treatment and trying to procure a long life to relieving the pain. There has to be a realization from the workplace that this is a possibility.”

There also has to be a realization that the experience will differ depending on the diagnosis and your general health, age, family and financial situations and response to treatment. Some people, like Huculak, may be able and willing to work during treatment. Others will take long-term disability. Some may return to the same job, others may change positions or not come back at all.

What is consistent is that if you have been diagnosed with cancer, you need to notify your employer, the sooner the better, “so you’re not leaving them in the lurch,” says John Bargman, a volunteer at Wellspring, a community cancer resource and support centre in Calgary. Bargman teaches a course through Wellspring on returning to work after cancer. “If you want to be treated with respect, you have to treat your employer with respect as well,” he says.

You also need to understand your health benefits.

If you have a human resources representative, schedule a meeting as soon as possible. Some companies have an employee assistance program, which can provide counseling to help deal with the stresses that come with a diagnosis.

It’s also important to meet with your supervisor to determine who, if anyone, you want to tell about your illness, and how much you want to share. Striking a balance between privacy and public knowledge is crucial to workplace harmony, because your colleagues are going to be affected, whether or not they know what’s going on. “What can cause some challenge is when information isn’t communicated properly,” Kennedy says. “The rumor mill can start. In the absence of information, people will often fill in the gaps themselves. It’s important to understand that [colleagues] are involved emotionally and potentially with respect to sharing that workload.”

When Huculak showed up for her first day at ATB Financial, only Garritty and an HR rep knew that she had cancer. It wasn’t that she wanted to keep it a secret – when she was back at work between the surgery and chemotherapy, she was more than willing to answer questions – but as the new person in the office, she was in an awkward position. Nobody knew her or what she was capable of, and she didn’t want the cancer to define her. “I didn’t want to be the person everyone felt sorry for,” she says, explaining that she asked Garritty to notify the rest of the department about her illness after she had left for the surgery. “I didn’t want it to be the focus of that week and a half. I wanted to come in, organize my office, and get to work.”

Huculak’s plan worked. Rather than resented, she was welcomed warmly when she returned to work. When she left on the Fridays before she was to start a week off for chemotherapy, she and her colleagues hugged goodbye. Her final words to them on those days: “See you in a week.”

Not everybody has it so easy. “I’ve been exposed to people who have lost their jobs or had their jobs terminated on them because of cancer and had to engage the legal world, which is the last thing you want to do when going through this kind of treatment,” says Bargman. The Wellspring volunteer is a business processes and systems consultant who was treated for head and neck cancer in 2006. “I’ve heard of bosses saying ‘don’t bother coming back’ and I’ve heard of people who, for their own reasons, quit their jobs and are having real difficulty finding new jobs.”

As a self-employed consultant, Bargman didn’t even have the luxury of collecting employment insurance. His oncologist told him three months after treatment, “I don’t see any reason why you can’t be working.” Bargman found work, but full-time was too much to handle. Another six months passed before he was able to return to work, this time permanently.

Bargman said the experience taught him a couple important lessons: Just because you don’t have cancer symptoms doesn’t mean you’re 100 per cent ready to go back to work; medical readiness may not take into account mental and physical capabilities and the best way to return to work is on a modified, graduated schedule.

Sometimes the best way to return is in a different position, as Calgary-area teacher Debra Morán discovered. Morán taught Grade 1 French immersion when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in August 2008. But after two extensive surgeries and chemotherapy, she didn’t have the energy to deal with young children.

Fortunately, her employer, the Rocky View District School Board, wanted to start an online, virtual Spanish program for high school students. With planning and support from her long-term health insurance provider, Morán went back to work in December 2009, working her way up to part time by February 2010. The school board provided her with accommodations, including a chair with back support, a larger computer screen and pads for her wrists so that her lymphodema, swelling as a result of her surgeries, wouldn’t become a problem.

Huculak, too, returned to work on a modified schedule, but within three-an-a-half months she was back full time. “I love working,” she says. “It’s my craft and I like to do it and it really helped me.” But it wouldn’t have been possible without the positive work environment. “Colleagues take their cues from you,” she says. “I treated my friends and colleagues the same. You spend as much time at work as you do at home, so if someone brought it up and asked a question about chemo, what it was like, I would tell them. Otherwise, we did not talk about it. It wasn’t a delicate secret, but I’m there to work.”