Pressures of Cancer in the Silicon Valley Workplace


In the take-no-prisoners workplace culture of Silicon Valley —where vacation time piles up because employees don’t want to risk being left behind – two Cancer CAREpoint clients have found their high tech employers to be understanding and supportive as they deal with cancer in their lives. Worry about work is a major stressor for cancer patients and caregivers. There are state and federal laws to protect employees with health issues, but those don’t address the emotional and relationship challenges with bosses and coworkers.

Employees are more than a skill set

“People carry their whole self into the workplace, not just a skill set,” said Brad Leary, LCSW, CT Director of Patient and Family Services at Cancer CAREpoint. “Every employee brings physical, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of themselves to the job. Smart employers recognize this and try to be as accommodating as possible.”

That was the case for John who informed his manager just hours after his wife received a devastating diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer. “I’ve worked for this company for 19 years so I feel I have built up a lot of social capital,” he said. The firm has allowed him more flexibility on his work hours so that he can accompany his wife to some treatments and all consults with the doctors, and he was able to change positions to one that is more operational and easier to handle when he is distracted. “The anxiety level can get high and it is easy for your mind to go to a dark place thinking about the future,” he said. “Thinking about a work project is hard when you are preoccupied with personal feelings. It’s a struggle to remain relevant with the constant distraction of worrying about my wife.”

Claire has also experienced positive support from her company during two bouts with cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2013 and breast cancer last year. She is just now returning to work part-time as a human resources professional after being on disability for six months. “My boss told me right away to go on disability so I could focus all of my energy on getting well,” she said. “The whole team at work has been great because everyone knows someone who has had cancer and knows how hard it is.”

Prepare for coworker reactions

Brad recommends that cancer patients and caregivers prepare themselves for a variety of reactions from coworkers. Some may express empathy while others may ask intrusive questions or make unhelpful comments because they don’t realize they are making you uncomfortable. Claire has been very open to telling people about her cancer and even references it in workshops she facilitates on how to manage change. “I didn’t expect the reaction I got,” she said. “It felt like people paid more attention to what I had to say and some come up to me afterward to share stories about family members who had cancer. It seemed to level the playing field and bring a closer connection.”

She realizes from comments made by other cancer patients in Cancer CAREpoint support groups that not all employers are as supportive as hers, but she recommends that cancer patients ease back into work at their own pace. “Go back slowly to test your physical stamina and how much ‘chemo fog’ you still have,” she said. “If you enjoy your work, find a way to do it. It is a great distractor as you go through recovery and it also gives your caregiver some time alone to refresh.” “Many of us derive a sense of purpose, accomplishment and satisfaction from our jobs,” added Brad.

"Patients and caregivers should not feel guilty if they need time and space away from the workplace to cope with one of the most difficult periods of their life. It is up to each individual to find the balance, and we’re here to help them do that.”

Cancer in the workplace checklist

  • Although by law, cancer patients do not need to divulge their diagnosis to their employer, many cancer patients have found it best to tell your manager as soon as you can.
  • Whether you are the patient or caregiver, the manager will appreciate knowing in advance that there will be absences, distractions and probable impacts on your productivity.
  • Check in with the Human Resources Department to become familiar with company policies as well as your legal rights.
  • Discuss with your manager who in the company needs to know about your situation. You should feel in control of who learns about the cancer diagnosis and how much detail you want to disclose. This is a time when it’s all about what you want!
  • Use support groups like the ones offered at Cancer CAREpoint to talk about your feelings and work options you are considering.
  • For more advice and tools on how to handle cancer in the workplace, contact Cancer CAREpoint for other resources.

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