The following excerpt is taken from Chapter
14 of Colon & Rectal Cancer: A Comprehensive Guide for
Patients & Families by Lorraine Johnston, copyright 2000 by
O'Reilly & Associates, Inc. For book orders/information, call
(800) 998-9938. Permission is granted to print and distribute this
excerpt for noncommercial use as long as the above source is
included. The information in this article is meant to educate and
should not be used as an alternative for professional medical care.
What you can ask of your coworkers depends on the structure and size of
your workforce, the level of competitiveness your profession experiences,
and the degree to which your work relationships drift into friendships. The
minimum you can ask of coworkers is patience and discretion, but frequently
they give you much more. Often the feelings your coworkers express and the
support they offer are a tremendous reinforcement for your well-being. To
know you are needed and missed can be uplifting.
In general, though, exercise some caution asking favors of coworkers who
are not also friends, because the request may seem out of bounds, or may
backfire if you're deemed too sick to perform well after revealing a
weakness or need. As with some friends, coworkers may want to know
everything about your illness, nothing, or some intermediate subset of
information that's hard to define and may change daily.
The good news is that many colorectal cancer survivors report that
coworkers pitch in and offer assistance without being asked: blood
donations, bake sales, shopping, baby-sitting, cheering visits, and so on
may materialize without your having to ask. Many colorectal cancer
survivors report that coworkers donate unused sick days to them, or
pinch-hit for them if they miss work or feel sick or tired.
Shelly found that his perspective on work changed:
Since I have been having such a bad time in the last few weeks, the
oncologist decided to give me next week off from chemotherapy. I welcomed
the rest. To me it's almost like looking forward to a vacation. God, how my
life and outlook has changed in the past few months. A rest from chemo is
now considered a "vacation."
I used to be jealous of people who had off the day after Thanksgiving.
Working in a bank, the bank was open the Friday after Thanksgiving. Look at
another bonus from cancer: to be so fatigued I had to retire, and now have
as many days off as I want. Don't know if I want to laugh at the irony or
On the other hand, if some coworkers are reluctant to recognize your
illness owing to their own fears or lack of social skills, they might never
refer to it, not even to wish you well. You can feel free to say nothing to
the potentially unsympathetic coworker if you choose, but there are
disadvantages in not keeping your immediate supervisor informed about your
health status. For example, if your supervisor is unaware of problems
you're experiencing as a result of your illness or its treatment, you may
have difficulty winning a favorable decision if a dispute about your
Remember that cancer is considered a disability under the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA), so negative reactions in the workplace that result
in demonstrable emotional or professional harm to you, such as denial of a
promotion or censure for using earned sick time, don't have to be endured
without legal recourse.
Employee assistance programs (EAP)
Increasingly, employers are finding that it's to everyone's benefit if
they offer formal assistance to employees who have special needs at
difficult times. Employee assistance programs are designed to help the
employee weather life changes and become happy and productive again. If
your employer has an EAP, you should ask what it has to offer.
You should be aware, however, that if a health-related dispute over job
performance goes to court, employers can subpoena any doctor's records, and
so are given access to records that accumulate when you use an EAP. This
includes material that most people assume is confidential, such as the
notes a psychologist or social worker takes during a therapy session, even
if they don't bear directly on your job performance.
If you're seeing a psychologist privately, your employer may not know
that you are, or whom you're seeing. Clearly, this makes serving a subpoena
more difficult. But if you use an EAP, the wolf is guarding the chickens,
so to speak. In spite of safeguards that supposedly shield irrelevant
material from nonprivileged eyes, your employer may become privy to
information, for example, about a dependent child or a grandchild who began
using drugs after your diagnosis. These confidential documents also may be
admitted as evidence into the permanent and public legal record should you
have a workplace dispute that is settled in court.
Moreover, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 26, 1994, in
its "Your Money Matters" column that some less ethical managers
put pressure on EAP personnel to open files they have no right to see, in
the absence of any dispute in court.
Social acquaintances comprise a wide variety of people, some of whom,
such as church or temple members, expect to be asked for help, and others,
such as the spouses of coworkers, touch on your life only briefly or
occasionally, and probably don't expect to be asked to help. Many
colorectal cancer survivors are pleasantly surprised, though, to find that
people they thought were practically strangers pitch in and help without
Unlike your family, friends, and coworkers, social acquaintances don't
usually have the opportunity to see you doing everyday things, and
consequently they may have more misunderstandings about what you're going
through. On the other hand, people you choose to see socially may have more
in common with you than, for instance, those you have no choice but to work
In general, what you can ask of social acquaintances depends on the
context in which you know them. If they're fellow Junior Leaguers or
Jaycees, you might expect help, as these groups specialize in helping
others. If they're the friendly couple with season tickets next to yours at
the theater, perhaps not.
Organizations that focus on help
Your church, local chapters of the Elks, Rotary, or Shriners, or other
civic groups may be able to offer you help ranging from transportation for
treatment, to financial assistance, to pitch-in efforts for lawn care and
cooking. Moreover, an enormous collection of nonprofit organizations exists
to help you in various ways.