We have two very public stories playing out in national headlines that deal with public figures coping with cancer. The news that Elizabeth Edwards’ breast cancer had spread was piggybacked by news that Tony Snow’s colon cancer had also returned and spread. Both are terribly sad stories – both Edwards and Snow are parents in the prime of their lives and both are people who live lives in the glare of public scrutiny.
There are several life lessons to be learned, not the least of which is the value of early cancer detection and the importance of cancer screenings. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a month dedicated to reminding us that colorectal cancer is thought to be 90% preventable and one of the most treatable forms of cancer if detected early. And while breast cancer screenings are not as fail safe, the importance of early detection and preventive measures cannot be disputed. The personal health dramas of both Edwards and Snow will be catalysts for thousands to call their doctors for screenings. Often, public figures who share their experience can cut through our all-too-human tendencies to denial and procrastination and can also offer inspiration and hope to those who cope with their own or a loved one’s cancer.

Work-life balance
These stories also have brought the issue of work/life balance center stage as we watch the very different approaches that people and families take in addressing a major health crisis. When Elizabeth and John Edwards announced the return of her cancer along with their decision for John Edwards to continue in his quest for the presidency, it spawned a national debate that is spilling out in newsprint, talk shows and online message boards. Their choice has met with both accolades and criticism, and while much of the commentary may be colored by political partisanship, it highlights the very different approaches that people take to a life-threatening health crisis. Some would retreat to spend time with family and focus exclusively on health; some would focus on fulfilling lifelong dreams; some would quietly continue putting one foot in front of the other, living life with as much normalcy as possible.

One of the matters that is put in high relief in the case of Elizabeth and John Edwards is the concept of the value of work and a purpose-driven life. Obviously, both the Edwards have a passion for their mission and their life’s work. Elizabeth’s choice is viewed by many other cancer survivors as life-affirming. Regardless, people and families must decide their own best approach. It is never wise to let the court of public opinion be a determinant of how we should live our lives.

Quiet dramas
In the workplace, quieter but no less compelling dramas are playing out every day as workers cope with their own cancer or life-threatening cancer suffered by loved ones. For many people, the high cost of health care dictates response simply because the job is the key to paying for care. For most, life goes on. As managers and colleagues, the most important thing we can do is offer a constructive support that is based less in sympathy and more in respect and regard for the person’s inherent dignity. The American Cancer Society offers these basic do’s and don’ts for dealing with a coworker who has cancer:


  • Take your cues from the person with cancer. Some people are very private while others will talk more about their illness. Respect the person’s need to share or their need to remain quiet.
  • Let them know that you care.
  • Respect their decisions about how their cancer will be treated, even if you disagree.
  • Include the person in usual work projects and social events. Let him or her be the one to tell you if the commitment is too much to manage.
  • Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most.
  • Expect your colleague to have good days and bad days, emotionally and physically.
  • Keep your relationship as normal and balanced as possible. While greater patience and compassion are called for during times like these, your colleague should continue to respect your feelings, as you respect his or her feelings.
  • Offer to help in concrete, specific ways.
  • Check before doing something for them, no matter how helpful you think you are being.
  • Keep them up-to-date with what’s happening at work.
  • Send cards, and include anecdotes about why he or she is missed. If interested people send individual cards, they may have more impact.


  • Offer unsolicited advice, or be judgmental.
  • Assume that he or she can’t do the job. Your co-worker needs to feel like a valuable, contributing member of your company or department.
  • Feel you must put up with serious displays of temper or mood swings. You shouldn’t accept disruptive behavior just because someone is ill.
  • Take things too personally. It’s normal for your co-worker to be quieter than usual, to need time alone, and to be angry at times. These feelings are normal, so don’t worry.
  • Be afraid to talk about the illness.
  • Always feel you have to talk about cancer. Your colleague may enjoy conversations that don’t involve the illness.
  • Be afraid to hug or touch your friend if that was a part of your friendship before the illness.
  • Be patronizing. Try not to use a “How sick are you today?” tone when asking how the person is doing.
  • Tell your co-worker, “I can imagine how you must feel,” because you really can’t.

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