Healthy Ways to Cope With Serious Illness at Work


When Mona, an accounting manager for an Anaheim insurance company, first heard that Carol, a co-worker of eight years, had been diagnosed with ovarian/uterine cancer, she cried. Then she let Carol know she was available to help in any way necessary.

While Carol was home for four months, Mona--who, like Carol, asked that her last name not be used--visited and called and kept her co-worker updated on what was happening at the office.

Although Mona was worried about Carol when she returned to work while still undergoing chemotherapy, her fears were allayed.

“I’m in awe of Carol,” Mona says. “Despite the chemotherapy, she returned in very high spirits and has been working really well through all of this.”


Carol’s situation is common today.

It used to be that when people became ill with a potentially life-threatening illness, such as cancer, they quit work and sometimes didn’t return, but that isn’t so now, says licensed clinical social worker Linda McFadden, who has a private practice in Tustin and often counsels seriously ill individuals.

According to the American Cancer Society, 80% of cancer patients return to their jobs after surgery or treatment.

“Because insurance polices have cut back on stay-at-home time and families often need two incomes, many people must return to work despite serious illness,” McFadden says. “They will return to work during radiation and chemotherapy, which is a very difficult thing to do. Many people would like to stay home and rest if they could, and they probably should.”


But there are people who improve because of work.

“Some people deal with the illness better if they are able to work, especially if they have a long history of work and get their self-esteem from their job,” McFadden says. “Being able to work helps them realize they are strong.”

When a co-worker is diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, the entire staff is affected, McFadden says.

“People are frightened by severe illness,” she says. “The thought of cancer and other potentially life-threatening illnesses makes them feel vulnerable, because they realize it could happen to them. If the person is someone they really care about, their productivity will be affected to some degree.”


Unfortunately, some co-workers react negatively to the news of illness by avoiding the person or offering pity.

“Acting like you aren’t sick is the best way to go” to prevent problems at work, Carol says. “I think if you whine, co-workers lose patience, which has a negative effect on everyone’s performance. I keep my personal problems at home and just talk about the cancer with my friends. As a result, people have forgotten about the cancer, and I’m treated as I always was.”

Gail, 48, is a secretary who worked closely with Carol for six years. When she heard her co-worker had cancer, she was shocked.

“Cancer is a very scary word,” she says. “When I first heard about Carol, I cried. Then I wondered if she would be able to come back to work and if her life would ever be the same.”


From the beginning Gail showed her support for Carol by calling and sending little notes and gifts.

“A co-worker who has cancer has to know that you care and you’re interested in him or her getting well,” she says. “Never dwell on the negatives, only on positives.”

Gail has found that humor is especially helpful when a co-worker is ill. “Doing things to cheer them up really helps,” she says. “When Carol’s hair fell out from the chemotherapy, I gave her a box of lollipops and said, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’ I always look on the bright side, even if it isn’t that bright.”

Gail worried about Carol’s return to work but was pleasantly surprised to see that Carol handled it remarkably well.


“There she was undergoing hours of chemotherapy and then returning to work,” she says. “I just marveled at how well she did it. It made me hope that if I become ill someday I’ll be able to handle things so well.”


Barbara McKone is a psychologist and clinical director of the Orange County Wellness Community in Santa Ana, which provides services for seriously ill individuals. She worked with Vicki Goldicsh, the first executive director of the center, before Goldicsh died of cancer 2 1/2 years ago.

“We had a wonderful, rich working relationship,” McKone says. “When we first met, Vicki’s dream was to make the Wellness Community a reality, which we did. Initially, her cancer was in remission, but as we worked together, biology eventually overcame her determination.”


McKone worked with Goldicsh for 1 1/2 years.

“Vicki taught me that communication between two people is vital when one person has a potentially life-threatening illness,” McKone says. “The key is to ask clear questions and respect the response. Being sensitive to the ill co-worker’s situations is also a good idea.”

If you see that things are becoming difficult for the person, sit down and offer to help, but don’t treat the person like an invalid, she says.

McKone also advises against making the illness the center of what is going on in the office. “Concentrate on other things,” she says.


McKone says having a co-worker who had cancer was an enriching experience.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about the fragility of life,” she says. “If you don’t fear it, you can only be enriched by the experience. Most of the time our fears aren’t about the other person; they’re about our mortality. Recognizing that frees you and enables you to be there for your co-worker, who probably needs you more than any other time.”