When a kid gets cancer

Communication helps balance employee’s and company’s needs
It was noon on a work day when my 12-year-old son’s doctor referred him to the cancer clinic at Children’s Hospital for testing.
Of course, I left the office immediately. It was the first of many times I was absent from work – physically and mentally – during Todd’s diagnosis and the ensuing nine months of chemotherapy.
No parent can imagine the turmoil that comes when a child falls seriously ill. In the same vein, no policy manual can account for the disruption in the workplace when an employee must attend to a sick child. Absences are not just frequent but unpredictable in timing and duration. Schedules have to be juggled, meetings canceled, trips postponed, work reassigned.
All that can be especially trying for small business owners without the backup staff and other resources available in large corporations. It can be equally trying for small business employees who may not have large-company benefits such as cumulative sick leave and coverage under family-leave laws.
It may seem cold-hearted during such a crisis to talk about balancing work and family – naturally the child’s needs come first. Still, a balance must be struck, and the key to that is communication.
Roger, a government affairs specialist with a Wisconsin company whose college-age daughter is in remission after cancer treatment, came to an early and productive agreement with his supervisor.
“My first estimate of how the illness would affect my job fell far short of what actually occurred,” said Roger. “It worked out because when I learned my daughter’s diagnosis, I sat down and had a frank discussion with my boss. We basically agreed that she
A balance must be struck, and the key to that is communication.
would throw out the policy manual as long as I never made her regret it.”
Edward, a marketing executive at a graphics firm whose 3-year-old son was cured of cancer through surgery, addressed the illness and its impact in written message to his boss and the company’s human resources department.
“They were very gracious,” he recalled. “They told me to do whatever I had to do,” said Edward.
While companies typically give such leeway to parents caring for a sick child, parents should not simply assume that others in the workplace understand their situation. Even when bosses treat the situation sensitively, some co-workers may not.
Thomas, an employee of a delivery service whose teenage daughter has completed a successful cancer treatment, had an empathetic supervisor who gave him complete flexibility during the illness and arranged for others to fill in when he was gone. While his peers were also mostly supportive, Thomas heard the occasional gripe about his absences.
“When I heard the complaints, I would ask the person, ‘Would you care to trade places?'” Thomas said.
Communication can prevent such difficulties with peers and supervisors alike. The parent of a sick child should start the dialogue, rather than wait for management to do so. Unless bosses and co-workers have been through something similar, they may wonder:

  • Why is so much time off required?
  • Why must both parents accompany the child to treatment?
  • Why must so many absences occur on such short notice?
    The answers are easily seen when the illness is viewed from the child’s and parents’ perspectives. From the day a cancer appears, the child trades a comfortable world of school, soccer, toys and television for one of nurses, needles, test tubes, IV bags, pills, bandages, scanning devices and foul-tasting medicines.
    Swirling all around is anxiety over the disease, whose possible consequences the child, depending on age, may or may not fully understand. It is hard to imagine a more important time for parents – both parents – to be involved and physically present as much as possible.
    Hospital visits for biopsies or surgery are only the beginning. Chemotherapy sessions follow, leading to side effects from nausea to muscle pain to mouth sores to general, persistent fatigue. Therapy depresses the child’s immune system, requiring constant vigilance for signs of infection. My son, for example, made several trips to the emergency room for fevers, and three times checked into the hospital for up to three days of intravenous antibiotic treatments – times during which I missed work.
    Even when the child is home, there are times both parents need to be there. And parents themselves require the occasional break to maintain their own mental and physical health.
    Childhood cancers and other illnesses vary in their severity and in their effects on parents’ work lives. Edward’s son, for example, contracted a cancer readily cured by surgery. The effect on Edward was sudden and traumatic but of relatively short duration.
    “In my case,” he said, “it was less a question of the amount of time off than of being checked out emotionally for a while. Knowledge and awareness are very important. People from all over the company were sending me notes of support.”
    Roger’s situation was more complicated because his daughter’s treatment lasted nine months and because she was away at college, receiving treatment at a hospital two hours from home. When he could, Roger rearranged his schedule so that both he and his wife could be present for chemotherapy sessions.
    “The understanding I had with my boss was that there would be many times I would have to leave the
    No parent can imagine the turmoil that comes when a child falls
    seriously ill. In the same vain, no policy manual can account for the disruption in the workplace when an employee must attend to a sick child.
    office during the day, with or without notice,” he said. “In exchange for her understanding, I assured her that whatever it took to get the job done, it would get done – just not necessarily between 8 and 5.”
    Not all employees can make such guarantees. Some children’s illnesses are so serious that parents cannot avoid long or frequent absences from work and significant declines in their production. And, from the employer’s side, some job responsibilities are easier to share and reassign than others.
    Especially in such cases, it is essential for employee and employer to discuss, up front, the likely effects of the illness on the workplace and how the interests of both employee and company can best be served.
    Parents interviewed for this article agree that the vast majority of employees want to continue contributing on the job at the highest level possible and will treat the employer’s accommodation as a two-way street. While in the short term the absences may be inconvenient and even costly to the company, employees will fondly remember an employer who stands by them in a difficult time.
    “In 99 out of 100 cases,” said Roger, “if a proper understanding is reached, the employer will eventually wind up on the better end. In the long run, the employee will make certain that the company is treated fairly. There is no way the company can lose when that ledger is balanced at the end.”
    Ted J. Rulseh is a self-employed book publisher and freelance writer who lives in Waukesha. His son’s treatment for Hodgkins’s disease has been successful. The names of the sources quoted in this article were changed to protect the families’ privacy. At the author’s request, Small Business Times is donating the author’s fee for this article to the MACC Fund for childhood cancer research.

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