Office Politics Exist Even in Cancer Treatment And Research Centers

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I spent a recent late afternoon with a group of cancer buddies, women who’ve had–or have–breast cancer. The distinction is minor; some of the women in the group are wearing wigs, some are sporting the Sinead O’Connor look–you know, that 1/2” crewcut that says “I finished chemo 3 months ago (or started 3 weeks ago)”–and some are years past their diagnosis. But the experience of going through breast cancer has bonded us; we’re a sisterhood of survivors, and nothing can change that.

    As always happens with largish groups of women, no single speaker captured the floor for very long. The conversation ebbed and flowed, with two or three discussing their just-planted gardens, another two talking about a play they’d both seen, and two of the older women comparing notes on grandchildren. I happened to be sitting between two women who both work in administrative capacities at our local cancer center. And they got into a discussion that burst a few bubbles I’d had concerning this center, one of fewer than 40 comprehensive cancer centers in the United States.

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    “I’ve had it with the doctors there,” said one woman. “I don’t like any of them. They don’t listen to me. I walked out on the last one, and I’m not going back. I need to find someone new.”

    The other woman listened sympathetically. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Of the surgeons there, when I asked people’s opinions on which one I should choose for my mastectomy, even inside the hospital they’re, like, ‘Oh, you definitely don’t want Dr. X or Dr. Z; go for Dr. Y.’ And that’s pretty sad, when even within the institution, those supposedly in the know, they can only recommend one surgeon.”

    The two went on to discuss the politics going on in the research wing of the cancer center, referring to a “lack of collegiality,” “sharp elbows,” and the poor treatment received by young female researchers, who apparently get elbowed aside by more aggressive male researchers trying to make a name for themselves. WHAT? All of these disheartening goings-on are taking place at MY cancer center, the institution I’ve held in the highest esteem for the past 6 years, for which I’ve helped raise millions of dollars… the place that saved my life?

    After getting over my initial dismay, I simply sighed, and wised up. Why would I think a hospital/cancer center would be any different than any of the other places I’ve worked over the past 30 years? Every workplace has “office politics,” failings and frailties that are all too human–exactly because businesses are nothing more than a reflection of the people who work in them. Exceptional people grow superlative businesses; think Southwest Airlines. Unethical, greedy people grow… well, businesses like Enron.

    In between those extremes are the vast majority of American businesses–some a bit above average, some a bit below, all struggling to compete in a society driven by the almighty dollar. And this includes hospitals, cancer centers, and research facilities, which need money to keep the wheels turning day after day, just like the rest of us.


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    Why did I expect doctors and cancer researchers to somehow be above the fray, nobler beings than those of us scuffling along trying to sell sneakers or furniture or life insurance? What these medical professionals DO is certainly of a higher calling than what most of us spend our days working on. Looking for a cancer cure, treating women with breast cancer so that they can live long enough to see their children grow up–that’s working for the greater good, making the world a better place.


    But that doesn’t mean the folks treating us should or can be held to an artificially high standard of conduct.  

    Within any organization, there are super-talented people with brilliant ideas; and there are people who put their shoulders to the wheel to keep things moving; and then there are people who should probably be fired. A certain amount of bickering, backstabbing, and finger-pointing happens in any business. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my cancer center is any different. The moral of this story being: We’re all human. Even those talented men and women who work to save our lives.

Published On: May 29, 2008