Work, Cancer and Us

'If you don't know someone who has been afflicted by cancer, chances are good that your colleague does.'

It was about 20 years ago when I read a compelling series of stories by a San Diego reporter. The articles, which ultimately garnered national recognition for the writer and the newspaper, didn’t rely on traditional hot-button topics such as corruption or scandal in public education—this particular scribe’s daily beat.

No, these stories were of a much more personal nature. Drew Silvern chronicled the grim, unfair reality of being a 34-year-old diagnosed with brain cancer. During the next three years, Silvern pulled no punches as he took us on an incredibly private journey of living with a death sentence. Graphic descriptions of medical procedures—the fist-to-gut reaction to being told the cancer had returned—were juxtaposed by deep spiritual musings, thoughts of family and friends and an amazing dedication to his craft.

Silvern died in 1997 at age 37. Amid the emotion stirred by such a story, what struck me as I recently reread his journal was his bravery: Silvern went public when no one would have blamed him for staying private.

His employer, the San Diego Union-Tribune, could have backed away from publishing an explicitly detailed, difficult and, quite frankly, uncomfortable story. But they didn’t.

Cancer at work still reflects the attributes Silvern delivered to his readers nearly two decades ago. Though communications and acceptance have improved, cancer is an uncomfortable subject to confront and remains just as difficult to discuss.

Look around your workplace. If you don’t know someone who has been afflicted by cancer, chances are good that your colleague does. In fact, it could be the co-worker sitting next to you.

More than 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in the United States. Nearly half of those people range in age from 19 to 64—the prime ages of our workforce. Cancer costs employers $264 billion annually in health care costs and lost productivity. But the good news is that 90 percent of cancer survivors under 55 years old will return to work within a year of their diagnosis.

I fall into that category. I actually returned to work the day after receiving treatment for skin cancer in 2009. I’ve never spoken publicly about it. It’s personal and I feel like I can handle it on my own. With regular checkups and a very aggressive dermatologist, we’ve kept my cancer in check.

Perhaps my reluctance to discuss it until now is ill-advised, but I suspect I’m not the only one who works in relative silence with cancer. I pondered the ramifications of going public with this information. How will it affect my relationship with colleagues or with employers past, present and future? Will it kill my career growth? Even worse, am I seen as damaged goods?

Then I realized that’s just silly. Silence is not golden. With more cancer survivors in the workplace than ever before, and employers combing every avenue to keep health care costs in check, turning a blind eye is ignorant.

Cancer at work is not going away and has gone national in a big way. Good Morning America‘s Robin Roberts and actress Christina Applegate have publicly shared their battles with cancer. In our cover story, four people also tell their survival stories. You might have one, too.

Fortunately organizations such as the National Business Group on Health and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network also see the importance in addressing it. The groups are teaming on an employer’s guide to cancer care this year.

From employee assistance programs and wellness initiatives to improving your communication techniques, the tool kit aims to help improve employers and managers deal with cancer-related issues in the workplace. It could be the most valuable tool kit your management team ever picked up.

Because we all work with people like Drew Silvern, Robin Roberts and Christina Applegate. And me.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.