Cancer and Cancel

Empathy Kindness Respect


Key Point: I read a touching article by someone with late stage cancer the other day. One insight that really struck me was that “cancer” and “cancel” were just one consonant apart, and in some ways the two words “held each other’s hands.” Her view was that all the future plans she had were suddenly on hold. It was like flying down the freeway at 100 clicks and suddenly slamming on the breaks to take an off ramp. Cancer is a big word of course, and everyone’s diagnosis and situation is as intimate and personal as anything might be. 

Last year I had a carcinoma removed. As most know, this is about as a benign of cancer one might hope for. It’s typically slow growing and early diagnosis, along with the right surgical intervention gets rid of it permanently. When I had my facial surgery, it required about 18 stitches and was very noticeable. As I returned to work the morning after my procedure, I had a big white gauze bandage on my face. Of course everyone I ran into asked me or joked about it… Typically, “what did the other guy look like?” I decided to respond by saying, “it was cancer.” Now, if you ever want to shorten a conversation or abruptly adjourn a meeting, try the phrase “it’s cancer.” The likely reaction is an uncomfortable look away from any eye contact, followed by a quick exit. I wanted to yell after each person, “it’s not contagious! I promise! Please don’t run away!!” Ok, I’m exaggerating a little for affect here, but you get the drift. 

I personally know a couple of people in the workplace right now with a late stage cancer diagnosis. They are in one friggin’ big battle with C. And I know they need our compassion and support. Note, this is not the same as sympathy and pity. In most cases, that’s the last thing they want. When colleagues find out about a teammate that has been diagnosed, people are impacted with genuine concern for their co-worker, AND often many become frightened thinking about whether or not such a thing can happen to them.

And yes sadly, people who work during treatment or return to work after treatment may still encounter obvious or subtle workplace discrimination. For example, some employers and colleagues may assume that a person will be less productive or perform below the company’s expectations. And according to some research I’ve read, other examples of discriminatory actions include (believe it or not):

  • Being demoted without a clear reason
  • Being overlooked for new positions
  • Not receiving a promotion that you have earned
  • Finding a lack of flexibility when you request time off for medical appointments
  • Being left out of training or decision-making opportunities when you use sick leave for scheduled medical appointments.

It’s time we learned how to have more thoughtful, transparent strategies on how to better deal with cancer, mental health and other tough health issues. Of course, privacy related to disclosing a diagnosis is a right and privilege of each individual. Nevertheless, clearly supportive organizations and teammates can make such a phenomenal difference. This matters to the team member with cancer AND the rest of the work community as well. We ALL benefit from understanding and acting on the premise of being in it together and knowing we never have to go it alone. We all, if we’re awake, recognize the employee with cancer could easily be you or me. 

Character Moves:

1, If you are an employer/leader, you owe it to yourself, employees with cancer, and all team members to compassionately accommodate. All business is personal. When people are most vulnerable, our policies and care ideally shows up like a giant rescue spotlight on very dark and stormy waters. Advanced companies know how to meet with the employee, perhaps including a patient advocate, to discuss resources and support the person can access, including reviewing issues such as caregiving responsibility, childcare, finances and insurance – and then continuously staying in touch for on-going support. 

2. If you are a teammate, being self-aware and open about your own personal feelings and fear is understandable. Know how to be supportive by genuinely caring and NOT saying well intended dumb things like, “don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” “I had a friend who had the same thing and ___.” In most cases, people just want to be treated with respectful understanding, and never patronized or judged. 

3. Glen Sather, well known NHL hockey player and executive, had prostate cancer and gives out a bracelet to friends with the following phrase inscribed on it: “F…K Cancer.” Perhaps we should all wear that bracelet. For a very touching, authentic experience journey written by a friend going through his personal cancer battle, read Jim Button’s blog. He has been diagnosed with lung cancer. See his story/site here... His “character moves” are the real deal. 4 and 5 are from Jim Button:

4. “Be comfortable talking to the person. Ask questions as it’s up to the person to let you know how comfortable they are discussing. Certainly give them the ‘I hope you don’t mind talking’ opener so they have a way out if need be. It’s better to have been asked, and shown that you care than to be put into that scary cancer corner all by yourself.

5. Somehow it’s not all negatives. There are so many positives and people are great, so make sure this blog post isn’t about the shitty side of the equation. That being said, I am an optimist so I have that view, I have met others that are in a negative spiral and they are their cancer.”

6. Listen to Jim. True to his core values, he is genuinely finding the positives in his cancer journey. He is one of my real super heroes! 

F&$K Cancer in The Triangle 


One Millennial View: A famous Canadian YouTuber is actually going through chemotherapy and vlogging it for his millions of followers. His normal business is fitness and competitive eating, so it’s strange to watch someone who just deadlifted 700 pounds physically deteriorate while battling cancer for the third time. His spirit, however, has not. Thanks to these outlets, we have a better window into these circumstances than ever before… We get to see how human they are, how generally positive those going through it remain, the verbal support they receive, and that subtle/scary reminder that you just never know when it might be you. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis