The "C" Word and Work


At one time, the word “cancer” was only whispered and never spoken out loud. Times change, but sometimes it’s hard to let those you work with know that you have/had cancer.

When I was first diagnosed, my immediate reaction was not to tell anyone. Yes, I know that was unrealistic, but it made sense to me at the time. You see, if I didn’t say it out loud, then maybe it wasn’t true.

I needed a few days to get used to the idea that I had cancer. As the word rumbled around in my head, I became accustomed to the notion. Slowly I began to speak, but only in a whisper.

I told my boss, but I think he already knew. He was quite aware of the several medical appointments all jammed into a couple of days and was at my desk when I took a critical call from the doctor. Although he discretely excused himself immediately, he knows me well enough to read my body language. I told the person who would backfill for me when I was out of the office, as well as her boss so she would understand why my work was being done by her department.

At my second job, I told my manager and the three supervisors I had worked with for years since they would be picking up the slack when I wasn’t around. I also spoke to the person who handled our HR regarding sick leave. It’s a small company. I had been there more than 20 years, so I told the president of the company. Her husband had died a few years before after a long battle with cancer. She saw to it that I could work from home sometimes and made arrangements to temporarily relocate me to an out-of-the-way area of the office when I went in to work to minimize exposure to anything that might affect my compromised immune system.

At both jobs, everyone was very supportive. I admonished each person not to tell anyone else, and no one did. It was our little secret. It’s not that I thought I could hide it, although not knowing the physical changes wrought by chemo maybe I thought I could, but this was what I felt at the time was not just the best way but the only way for me to deal with it. I just didn’t want to discuss it with anyone.

I returned to work three weeks after surgery. Maybe people thought I had been on vacation. A few weeks later, I showed up one day wearing a wig with a style and color similar to my own now gone hair, but at the same time, it was suddenly very different. Bald underneath, people often commented about my new haircut. I thanked them for the compliment, but I was never sure if it was because they really thought it was a new hairdo or if they knew it was a wig and wanted to say something supportive without letting on that they knew it was cancer since I obviously didn’t want to talk about it. Either way worked for me.

Time passed. Treatment ended. My hair grew back gray and straight instead of brown and curly. Hmm. By tacit agreement, people at work said nothing about the change. I quickly tired of looking at the gray, so I colored my hair. Gradually I mentioned cancer, chemo, radiation, neuropathy, etc. in conversations. No big deal. It just came out sometimes. A co-worker had a fast-growing brain tumor, so we talked about the “C” word in the few months between her diagnosis and death. The husband of another co-worker slowly died of cancer and we spoke about it regularly. Perhaps others overheard these conversations, and that was all right with me.

Life goes on. I applied for a different position in another branch of the organization. Before my callback interview, I argued with myself about mentioning the “C” word. Going into the interview, I wasn’t sure whether I would. Since cancer has had such an impact on me it seemed that not bringing it up was almost a lie by omission. When the time came, I heard the “C” word coming out of my mouth in a natural flow of the conversation. I didn’t get the job, and I will always wonder if the “C” word made a difference.

A few months ago I was up for another position. Again, I made it to the callback interview. When I walked in, I wasn’t sure what I was or wasn’t going to say but the “C” word did not come out of my mouth that day. I didn’t get that job, either.

So, does the “C” word matter in work situations? Personally, I think it can, but I don’t think it always does. It depends upon your perspective.

I am glad I no longer keep my cancer to myself. In the last year, two women at work have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Or I should say that I am aware of two. I am six years out from diagnosis and I think the fact that I am still alive and kicking helped allay their fears. Over the last couple of years, others from work have come to me to talk about cancer — sometimes their own, and sometimes that of a loved one. They need to talk and they need someone to listen who truly understands what they are talking about even when they don’t understand it. I consider it a privilege to be their sounding board.

And to think there was a time that I didn’t want to talk about it at all.

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