Illness and the Workplace

Posted on: August 7th, 2013 by

Many people diagnosed with [fill in the blank] have understanding bosses, co-workers, and a workplace that tries to accommodate them. Many others, however, do not.

I fell into the latter category with my breast cancer diagnosis and treatments.

Fighting cancer is devastating enough, but fighting for one’s rights in the workplace at the same time is especially exhausting, daunting, and demoralizing.

I am lucky at this point in my life. My current workplace is different than the one I had during my illness. When employees get ill, my employer takes care of their needs and rallies behind them to ensure they don’t have to worry about politics at a tender time like this. 

For this posting, my former employer will remain anonymous. My goal is not to point fingers at a particular place of work. The point of this posting is to discuss a very real problem that is not always talked about — the workplace harassment of those afflicted by illness.

My story is just one example of this, although I have heard many people recount the same types of stories.

Before my breast cancer diagnosis, I had a reputation for outstanding work at the company. A talented, trustworthy worker with a great work ethic, I was promoted twice and enjoyed my seniority, as well as the relationship I had with my boss.

Then came cancer. 

At first, everyone rallied around me. My boss hugged me several times and told me I had her support. Co-workers were on hand to hug and talk with me, and expressed their heartfelt sorrow — especially on the day I received the phone call — at work — telling me I had cancer. When I was home recovering from surgery, my company sent me flowers and cookies

I felt cared about.

But once faced with the reality: the grueling, never-ending ugliness of the disease, my boss became nasty not so nice. I had radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously, and that was a shitty, utterly shitty challenging treatment regimen (of course no cancer or its treatment is a walk in the park, unless that park is in hell). 

Throughout radiation and chemotherapy, I struggled to stay standing and to stave off infection after damn infection. Even more unexpectedly, I struggled to stay employed.

Radiation — An Inconvenient Truth

Not only did I deal with the physical and emotional effects of being burned to Kingdom Come, but I also got burned by an inflexible, harsh employment situation. 

Every weekday morning, for 33 mornings, I had an 8:10 a.m. radiation time slot, but work normally began promptly at 8:30 a.m. My doctor’s note explained my radiation regimen time slot. My company and I agreed that, factoring in travel time, I would have to arrive to work late, around 10 a.m., but I would leave work late (6 p.m.) to make up the time. 

I would be working a full day every day. I asked for no special favors, just reasonable accommodations. 

Some co-workers continued to remain supportive. Other people envied me because I got to walk in late. My boss started giving me the cold shoulder and avoided talking with me. Eventually, she decided that each day I was to log in my hours like a good little girl and submit them in writing to her.

Didn’t it occur to her that I was trustworthy? Didn’t it occur to her that for six years prior to my cancer diagnosis, I regularly came to work at 7 a.m. everyday without compensation?

Didn’t it occur to her that I had cancer?

Chemotherapy — A More Inconvenient Truth

I hardly ever took vacation days prior to cancer diagnosis, which turned out to work in my favor because I had accrued many days. Chemo days were Thursdays, and I would also take Fridays off — a four-day weekend once every three or four weeks. My vacation days were spent on a chemo getaway.


Still, some at work envied me for the “preferential” treatment I was getting. One co-worker told me, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you have it so much easier than all of us who can’t get time off so easily.”

Was she freakin’ kidding me, I thought, as I kept trying to hold down my feeble lunch.

A senior administrator further broke my heart when she said light-heartedly, “Our insurance premiums have gone up because of you.”

The Crying Game

When one is in a strong position — healthy — a person can more calmly and more assertively stand up for his/her rights. When one is weakened by illness, not so much.

Things got worse. Our company laid off a key person in our department, and during my treatment period we were all asked to do overtime and work weekends in addition to our Mondays through Fridays. I privately told my boss that I couldn’t work weekends, as that was my time to recover from the week. She said we would all have to pitch in, and I politely told her I couldn’t work weekends.

When I told my oncologist about this, he was livid. He wrote a note saying I was not, under any circumstances, to work weekends. Doing so, he said, would undermine my health.  

I gave the letter to my boss.

It only pissed her off.

She called me into her office, told me to shut the door, and let me have it. She said, “Over the past six months, you have developed an attitude problem. You are refusing to do your share of the work.” I explained that I had a cancer diagnosis and treatments during this time, and she responded that I was using my cancer as an excuse for being lazy.

She added that I used to be a team player and now I’m refusing to work.

I couldn’t handle it anymore. I started sobbing and looked at her.

She was smiling.

I left her office distraught. As the sole breadwinner in a dysfunctional family situation, I needed to keep my job. But my health took priority.

I didn’t work on weekends. And there was nothing my boss could do.


Within the next six months, I found a better employer. Still, what irks me are all the stories I’ve heard from others about how poorly they were treated by their bosses during and after cancer diagnosis and treatment. Of course, I’ve heard plenty of positive stories about kinder, gentler companies treating their ill employees well.

And that’s the way it should be.

Have you or anyone you know been treated poorly or exceptionally well in the workplace due to a diagnosis/treatment of an illness?

Please feel free to share stories and comment.

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37 Responses to Illness and the Workplace

  1. Lisa P. had this to say about that:

    While I can’t get into details here, I’ve experienced this in a number of ways. At one company, I was treated horribly due to an illness, despite coverage by the FMLA. This same company treated me VERY well when my son took very ill. At another company, it was the reverse.

    And, at one point in my career, I managed someone who had to take a medical leave. I had to become this person’s advocate (a position I took willingly) yet was treated poorly by my direct supervisor because of it.

    I’m so sorry you had to endure this while also dealing with a life-threatening illness.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Sounds like you’ve had your share of harsh treatments during some horrible health moments. It’s amazing: we have FMLA, but that doesn’t seem to keep nasty people from giving us a hard time when illness strikes. If these people who treat others poorly were ill themselves, then they would understand.

      I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with heartless people when you and your son became ill. Employers should be kind.

      And good for you for advocating for that person who took medical leave. It’s awful that there were repercussions from your supervisor, all because you chose to do the right thing.

  2. Tami Boehmer had this to say about that:

    Oh Beth! I can’t believe you were treated so awfully! I was treated well by my employer, but I’ve heard horror stories from others, a couple who were actually laid off while going through chemo. This should NOT happen. Have we turned into such a cold, work-obsessed world that people lose compassion? I’m so glad you found a better work situation. There should be laws against this.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m so glad your employer treated you well.

      I don’t know why some people lose their compassion in the workplace. People get so focused on “getting it all done,” that they lose perspective: people at a workplace are humans, not machines. People get ill.

      I’m sorry to hear about the people who were laid off while going through chemotherapy. Awful stuff. It’s hard enough to go through an illness, but to get laid off during treatment is cruel.

  3. had this to say about that:

    Before I got sick, I noticed an attitude among healthy employees of resentment toward those who are sick. They feel they have to pull the extra load. Many employers are takers. It’s always the bottom line.

    When I had cancer, my employer was overall wonderful and accommodated me. However, I was already underemployed, having lost work with another attorney who closed up shop just before my diagnosis. Not a good time to look for new work. Right when I neared the end of radiation, the employer I still had cut my hours further — on a Post-It note that said, “Eileen, don’t come in Wednesdays anymore.” He had hired another part-timer for half the salary. Thought he’d get more bang for his buck.

    As a bald, fatigued sick person, I wasn’t in a position to interview. Even so, I did manage to get a ghostwriting gig that pulled me through … until that was finished. The bottom line is that the other woman turned out to be awful and the boss let her go, giving me back my hours and then some, but too much financial damage had been done by then and I lost my house.

    When I read your story, I shouted at the screen (at your old boss and co-workers), “FUCKERS!” What selfish, inconsiderate asses your co-workers were, as if you had it easy. You would’ve loved to be healthy, handling the normal work week as before rather than go through the hell that is cancer.

    • Carolyn Thomas had this to say about that:

      Eileen, when you write: “Before I got sick, I noticed an attitude among healthy employees of resentment toward those who are sick” – you are describing what’s known as “healthy privilege. As Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte defines it: “…when you just can’t even imagine being sick”.

      I – like so many others – was just like this before I had a heart attack. It is information like this post from Beth that may help to educate others – one co-worker or boss at a time! – about the reality of diagnosis, treatment and the debilitating psychosocial fallout from both.

      • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

        Wow, Carolyn. I had no idea about “healthy privilege.” I guess unless we are sick it’s hard to imagine being ill. Thank you so much for the information. I appreciate it.

  4. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

    Oh Eileen,

    Your employer told you not to come in on Wednesdays anymore in a post-it note? Oh my gosh! When I read that, my heart ached for you. It’s a cowardly act on his part.

    And I’m sorry about how this workplace affected you so severely that you lost your home. Terrible. Dealing with illness is hard enough, so very difficult, and then to add insult to injury, losing financial stability is simply horrific.

    I’m so glad I’m not at my other workplace now. Yes, I would’ve LOVED to be healthy and work my regular work week than to have this disease and be so sick. I remember thinking at the time how I just wanted to be healthy so I could do my job. That’s all I wanted.

  5. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    I think it’s horrible the way you were treated, especially since your job performance prior to illness was stellar and even after your diagnosis, you continued to fulfill your job requirements. It’s too bad more employees don’t realize that standing behind their employees during difficult times builds loyalty and more often than not, enhances job performance. I’m sorry you were treated so badly. Thank goodness you found a better work environment. Thanks for writing about such an important topic. One more thing too many people suffer through in silence.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Nancy, thank you for your support. I think many employers are very short-sighted and only care about work, work, work. I think it’s important to be productive, but it’s just as important to take care of loyal, worthy employees who contributed so much to the company. Actually, a company should treat any employee grappling with an illness with kindness.

      I’m glad I’m at where I am now. It’s so much more fair.

  6. Laura Sullivan had this to say about that:


    Thank you so much for blogging about the employer/employee/illness situation. I’m currently on LTD from my former employer (after being terminated because of my child’s illness). I, too, was that “model” employee. Coming in at 7:00 am working sometimes until 6:00pm, and then of course had the company laptop at home so that I could login to the company computer systems and had the smart phone so that I could be available 24/7.

    They seem to forget all that when it comes to a temporary setback. The thing is that I guess most people just don’t get is that eventually everyone faces something, it’s unlikely that any of us are just going to leave this Earth, going to bed one night, peacefully and not waking up the next morning.

    The colleagues that you worked with will face illness themselves or be a caregiver to a spouse (I was) and perhaps then they will “get it.” Some people never do.

    I applaud you with your strength! It’s inspiring!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your story. Being terminated because of your child’s illness is simply unfair. It’s amazing how short-term an employer’s memory can be, isn’t it? You work all these hours for them, give them your undying loyalty, and this was your reward!

      It’s so true that some people never “get it” unless they face illness themselves. What’s often missing in the workplace is a lack of empathy when someone becomes seriously ill or is a caregiver for someone who is seriously ill.

      Thank you for reading my post and commenting.

  7. Denise had this to say about that:

    I went through exactly the same thing with my employer – all hugs, flowers and messages of support at the beginning – gradually morphing into snide comments, public humiliation, guilt trips and telling me to start to log my hours. I worked from home at the time and for the prior 5 years had not been asked for time logs – but suddenly because the fatigue and fugue made me less productive they didn’t believe I was even working at all.

    I fought to keep my job all through treatment which started in May 2009 and “finished” in June 2010, but finally in January 2012 I could no longer tolerate the stress of such a toxic and humiliating environment and quit.

    I filed a human rights complaint and have been awarded $20,000 for injury to dignity. I am sure they will appeal – that’s the way this company (that works to help non-profit organizations around the world) operates. They offered to settle for this amount prior to the hearing and I refused because one of the terms was that I would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

    No one is going to shut me up.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m sorry you had to go through all this nastiness from your employer and co-workers. Your story is so similar to mine.

      Good for you for filing the complaint and not “shutting up.” It’s great that you are fighting for your rights every step of the way.

  8. Renn had this to say about that:

    Beth, I’m so sorry to read about your work experience, and those that wrote in above me as well.

    The workplace is a grind and as world pressures have increased, so have the pressures we are under — not just to perform, but to *over-perform.* When co-workers express envy over someone getting flex time while going through cancer treatment, we got problems.

    Here’s my take: Being sick (no matter the reason) is a sign of weakness in today’s corporate culture. Those who are ill are the weak link. There is no wiggle room any more for human beings being “human” in the workplace.

    I know I’m generalizing here, but I also know this is the reality for far too many. To be expected to continue to perform at your highest level while going through treatment (or surgery, or grief, or you name the life event) is truly a travesty.

    I don’t have the answer. But I remember a time not that long ago when work was more than a place I went to exhaust myself, where I gave my best (and more hours than I was paid for) but still felt appreciated. Change came in the late 1990s; by the time the 2000’s hit, something had shifted along with all those jobs overseas: the perception that people were dispensable. Compassion? That was no longer cool. Profit trumped all.

    OK, I’m (slowly) climbing down from my decrepit soapbox to say I am grateful you have a job that you love and I’m sorry you had to go through hell to get there.

    Now where are my glasses? And when did music become so annoying? 😉

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      You are so right about the pressure to “over-perform.” The lack of empathy really was hard for me to grapple with. The insensitive comments were unbearable.

      You are so right: being sick is perceived by corporate culture to be a sign of weakness. But like you said, humans are still humans. I mean, we get sick, experience tragedies, etc. And it would help if we had an understanding employer.

      It’s sad that some employers feel workers are dispensable. Profit over compassion. All too true, my friend.

      And feel free to stand on your soapbox at any time. The end of your comment made me laugh! :)

  9. Jane Peterson had this to say about that:

    Wow is this a sensitive subject for me right now. I am in the midst of all of my one-year post diagnosis check ups and I told my onco that my job is so stressful I almost forgot I had breast cancer. I was in a tough, high focus project management job responsible for getting a multi-million dollar IT system back on track. I worked for the DC headquarters of my agency but lived in Denver where the IT was managed. The people in Denver distrusted me and my coworkers were in DC. I got breast cancer and a new (young male) supervisor at the same time. During my year of treatment he was sympathetic for about a month, then his patience eroded quickly. The Denver crew honestly acted as though I deserved a takedown and got no sympathy from the people I worked directly with. The few people I really befriended here rallied around me. It’s just been an atypical work experience for me. I finally got back to work after being off for most of Nov – March and the damage is done, my boss acts as though he can’t trust me now, my rise up the ladder has ended, my previously stellar reputation in my agency is tarnished. I completed all that was expected of me by getting the IT system back within budget and deployed on schedule, but my lack of presence let others take the credit (from me). So I think workplace issues are very critical to the BC discussion. FMLA did not protect me, but how can I prove it? Now I just wait for the 400 days until my retirement is secure so I can go enjoy life for a while.

    That seemed kind of vent-y. Thanks for the space. Your post was great!
    Jane in Denver

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Jane,

      Thank you for sharing your story. You have every right to vent, and I’m glad you felt comfortable to do so in my blog’s space.

      It’s ridiculous that your reputation within the company has been negatively affected and that your boss feels he can’t trust you now — all because of a cancer diagnosis! Like it’s your fault you got cancer.

      It’s amazing how his empathy was so short-term. That’s what I’ve realized from many about the workplace: empathy has a short shelf-life. Your co-workers are jerks. I don’t know how else to say it.

      I’m glad that at least you have a few true good friends who rallied around you.

  10. Elizabeth J had this to say about that:

    At the time of my cancer diagnosis, my school (I’m a teacher) rallied around me. They were caring and supportive in many ways.

    Unfortunately, the district was not so kind. They were having lay-offs, and despite the fact I had been there 16 years, since our state has no tenure, they decided to include me.

    They also refused to put in for disability for me, through disability insurance, not SS, and told me to go with early retirement. They also refused to pay me for unused sick days, saying because they laid me off, I wasn’t entitled because THEY laid me off.

    After some very part-time volunteer work at a local private school, I realized I do not have the stamina or energy to go back the classroom fulltime. Until then, we were trying to get by on my husband’s salary and savings, until I felt I was able to look for another teaching job. So, I decided to go for the early retirement after all. I found out from them that I needed to still try and fight for the disability and that my district really cheated me by refusing to apply for it. I will get about half the retirement I would have at 65. Disability would continue to count towards my retirement so I could still end up with close to full retirement. Also, if a year or two from now, I am able to go back to work (definitely a different school district), it would be much easier to do so from disability than retirement.

    Years ago, actually before we had as much “legal” protection as now, I twice saw school districts really stand by seriously ill teachers. So, I really expected more support at all levels. But apparently, times have changed.

  11. Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


    Your story is heart-breaking. I’m glad your school was supportive of you, but it stinks that your district was not. They really cheated you out of so much. As if getting sick isn’t bad enough!

    I’m sorry that you don’t have the energy to return to the classroom full time. Keep fighting for what’s due to you and for your rights.

    Take care.

  12. Elaine Schattner, MD had this to say about that:

    Thanks so much for this post, Beth. You’re right, not all employers and colleagues are sympathetic to cancer patients’ needs. This can have very negative, lasting effects.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Elaine, for your understanding and for reading and commenting on my post.

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  14. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Oh, Beth…

    I’m afraid a lot of us go through this to one degree or another, some of the most infuriating among those of us who actually work in healthcare, where one would think one’s employer would know better. Four years before my cancer diagnosis, I developed a severe herniated disk in my back that had to be surgically removed. There was nothing my then boss could do to me when I was home recovering after my surgery, but in the weeks leading up, when I was in excrutiating pain & finally had to cut back my hours, he treated me like dog poo, actually writing me up for missing an unimportant morning meeting so I could see patients instead in the afternoon. I got my revenge though, and started a process that eventually led to me changing departments & him being fired!!

    With the cancer, overall I was treated well, but my immediate supervisor rather infamously did not understand why radiation burns prevented me from accepting her invitation to go to a pink-washed rally. Oy…

    It never ends. I’m so glad you found another job! xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      That is so horrible how your boss treated you so poorly when you were in severe pain. He wrote you up? Absolutely ridiculous. Good for you for fighting back.

      Wow. Having radiation burns keeping you from going to a pink-washed rally is ironic isn’t it. Your supervisor needed to have a lesson in Empathy 101.

  15. Facing Cancer Together had this to say about that:

    I’m so sorry you weren’t supported, Beth. And with all else you had going on. It frustrates me to no end when I read stories like yours and those shared in these comments. During my earlier treatments I was working in a library and was so well taken care of. I wonder if these problems happen in all work environments, or only the more high-stress ‘corporate’ ones? ~Catherine

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Catherine, thank you for your support. I’m very glad you were supported in your library position. Personally, I think it doesn’t matter the size of the company in determining how one is treated. A large company can have great compassion, while a small company, not so much and vice-versa.

      I happened to be in a very small “friendly” company when the cancer shit hit the fan.

  16. Philippa (aka Feisty Blue Gecko) had this to say about that:

    Oh my goodness, what an honest and tragic post and discussion. Where has our humanity and respect gone? It takes a great deal of courage to stand up and say these things, thank you so much Beth for sharing.
    P xox

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you for your comment, Philippa. Our humanity and respect for each other has gone out the window, I’m afraid. I think many people are kind and compassionate when someone is ill, but too many are not.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  17. Ann Becker-Schutte (@DrBeckerSchutte) had this to say about that:


    Thank you for this powerful and important post. You are covering a huge topic, and one that affects folks with a wide spectrum of health concerns. It seems like some of the critical issues that we face as a culture–how to re-humanize the workplace, and how to remember that we will each face struggles so we should respond with compassion–are covered in your story. Thanks for sharing and sparking this discussion.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Ann,

      Thank you so much for your supportive comment. You hit the nail on the head: how to re-humanize the workplace and to treat each other with compassion. What surprised me was how uncaring people could be toward my time of crisis.

      There were people who treated me well, but the ones who didn’t really caused a lot of distress in my life, understandably.

  18. Sandra had this to say about that:

    I’m so glad I found you. I had a mastectomy in Nov, 2012. My husband left me June, 2013. Our marriage was already falling apart and cancer finished it off. I was blessed to not need treatments, but my recovery from surgery has been slower than I expected. I’m one of those fabulous employees, too. Or was. I’ve been called in for “the talk” more times in the past 6 mths than at any time in 6 yrs. I’m alone and afraid I’ll eventually lose my job. I feel let down and put down and my performance shows it. I haven’t gotten to the happy place yet and I don’t have the energy to look for it.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Sandra,

      I’m so glad you found me too! I’m so sorry about your marriage. This was similar to my situtation — my marriage was failing and cancer finished ours off, too. I’m sorry you are going through all this stuff with work.

      This sounds like a cliche but life is comprised of a bunch of rollercoasters. You are down now, but this does not mean this will always be the case.

      Hang in there one day at a time. Hopefully you will keep your job, but remember that losing a job is not as bad as having cancer. It’s all in perspective.

      There’s a really good resource that might be helpful to you: Cancer and Careers. The web site is

      Take care of yourself and please visit again. I am sending you cyberhugs.

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  21. Patricia had this to say about that:

    Please Help,

    I am a 19 year veteran with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue department I am a fire officer I’m the first black female fire officer, I’m the first black female fire investigator within the department in 2010 I was diagnosed with cancer and 2012 I had a transplant I am in remission as of 2013 . I worked during my treatments. I have always gotten great work reviews. but that never stopped the harassments. Due to long term side effects I can no longer fight fires my Dr’s and I have requested ADA accommodation but the fire dept. refuses to give me that in fact they are firing me two days before Christmas, not even a full work week, They will not even let me work another year to get my retirement. In October I was given a letter from the Chief stating that if I cannot come back to work due to my medical condition from the cancer I will be fired.

    The dept. is retaliating against me because of the many complaints I have had on them in fact they went so far as to attach false allegations on me to get me fired I had to fight tirelessly to not get fired I was able to keep my job but I was given discipline actions that I still know was unfair and I am still fighting. I have went to EEOC and office of equity and have had no help I need help please help I am still battling my illness and the dept. In their quest to fire me they have put me on FMLA leave knowing I have no leave which means no pay check.

    Where is the brotherhood and sisterhood? They have given someone that has invested less than 3 years in the dept. alternative placement. I have 19 years. The Fire Department puts on this façade of wearing pink during cancer awareness month and pink heals champagne but behind closed doors they are forcing employees that are battling cancer to return to work within a year or get fired. It takes a year to go through treatment itself and another to recover from the chemo treatment. I spoke with the union and they refuse to help due to political and financial reason not to mention that they didn’t want to make bad blood with the new Fire Chief. They are treating me as if I was a criminal because I am speaking up on all of these issues.

    I am going up against a large department and the fight is costly. I have reached out to so many people for help in exposing this matter but I have only been given the run around. Please contact me I don’t know where else to turn and there is so much more to why I am reaching out.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Patricia,

      It sounds like you are going through such a difficult time. I’m sorry all this is happening to you. It’s tough enough to deal with a serious illness, let alone have workplace issues.

      I recommend contacting an organization called Cancer and Careers. They have an annual conference in New York City, I believe, and the website is:

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