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Working Through It

Balancing the challenges of cancer treatment and professional life

Joe Wollschlager
Joe Wollschlager

It started at work. Joe Wollschlager was doing his job as manufacturing manager at Pdc Glass, in Plymouth, when he fell face-down to the floor. The former Marine was having a seizure, the first indication that he had stage IV brain cancer.

Lisa Rogers, D.O., Wollschlager's doctor at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, recommended he join a clinical trial that was researching the effect of a new drug in combination with radiation therapy. After completing the six-week program, Wollschlager returned to work and started on a chemotherapy regimen that still requires him to receive five consecutive days of infusion each month.

"I wanted to go back to work," Wollschlager, 50, said. "I wanted to make complex business decisions in terms of levels of production and so forth. I could do those things. It helped me mentally. I felt like I was in the groove again."

About 40 percent of the 1 million Americans diagnosed each year with cancer are of working age, according to Breakaway from Cancer, a joint initiative of the Wellness Community, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and the pharmaceutical company Amgen. Recently, Breakaway from Cancer conducted a survey of 1,000 patients and caregivers about the impact of cancer on their work. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents reported that their jobs helped them maintain emotional stability.

"There's a lot of good news in the work environment," said Mitch Golant, Ph.D., the Wellness Community's vice president for research and development, adding that during a similar survey conducted 10 years ago, fewer people reported that their supervisors were supportive. "Employers and colleagues are much more sensitive to the needs of caregivers and patients."

This year, although most survey respondents indicated that cancer had an impact on their ability to do their jobs, more than 75 percent also reported that their employers were supportive.

Wollschlager couldn't have asked for a better boss. "He only asked one thing. He told me, 'I want you to beat this'. It pushed me to put another log on the fire."

Finding Support

Not everyone has it so good, though.

The Breakaway from Cancer survey showed that one in 10 people reported having unsympathetic employers. Michele Bickett, a U-M Cancer Center social worker, said she works with patients to help them consider different strategies for coping at work. Bickett and her colleagues help patients sort out their options. For some, it's counseling about setting limits and learning to set boundaries. For others, it can be help with applying for income replacement from social security and disability funds.

For Wollschlager's wife, Lori, going back to work proved to be too much. She tried to continue at Sears, where she sells washers and dryers, but found she would burst into tears while talking to customers. Lori decided to take short-term disability, particularly since Joe wasn't able to drive himself to work for a while.

"I enjoyed taking care of him and driving him to appointments," she said. "It made me feel good. When I didn't get to drive him anymore, I missed it, even if he was a back-seat driver."

In cases where patients continue to do their jobs, Bickett helps them figure out ways to manage. She encourages people to schedule meetings to discuss their situations with employers.

Colleagues often can be a source of support, she said, so she recommends reaching out to co-workers you can trust.

"We try to get a sense of the work-place culture to help figure out ways our patients can get the support they need," Bickett said. "We take a look at who's been helpful in the past. Are there people they can rely on to help support them?"

Taking Stock

Assessing the situation is key, said Rosalind Joffe, a Boston-area career coach who specializes in helping people with long-term illnesses. She said it's important to think not only about how your workplace will react, but how you will present your situation.

She advises her clients to determine what kinds of accommodations would make work possible before they talk to their employers: Could you telecommute? Could hours be reduced?

"Talk about it matter-of-factly and as simply as possible so people have the confidence that you can get the job done," she said. It's important to present the information in a way that you would like it to be perceived, she said, adding that your tone is as important as the words you choose. Be choosy about who you share intimate details with. And remind people that you have an identity beyond your diagnosis, Bickett said.

"Colleagues don't always know what to say," she said. "Sometimes you need to let them know it's OK to talk about things that aren't cancer related. Let them know that you still want to order out for lunch or that you want to gossip around the water cooler about last night’s episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Lightening the Load

Generally speaking, Golant said, people are becoming more sensitive to the needs of people who are dealing with cancer. The Breakaway survey showed that 60 percent of respondents had even received goodwill gestures ranging from stepping in to help lighten the workload to donations of vacation time.

Wollschlager's co-workers organized a benefit at the local bowling alley that brought out 300 people. Tonya Maracle, who cuts frames at Pdc Glass, put the benefit together, asking others at the plant to pitch in food and donations for the raffle.

"It was just a little something to get the ball rolling," she said.

Go back to the Spring, 2007 issue of Thrive

Continue reading about balancing work and home life with cancer treatment

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Thrive Issue: 
Spring, 2007