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[M]any colorectal cancer survivors report that coworkers pitch in and offer assistance without being asked....

[W]hat you can ask of social acquaintances depends on the context in which you know them.

[A]n enormous collection of nonprofit organizations exists to help you in various ways.

Support from Your Community

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 cry.

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 performance arises.

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

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 being asked.

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 with.

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.

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