Two recent events started me to thinking about balancing work and cancer. First I participated in an interview for a doctoral student's thesis about work place problems for people with inflammatory breast cancer. About the same time I was trying to decide how to handle some new work place problems I was having with my lymphema.
The interview brought up all kinds of feelings I had not expected. So many of my coworkers wanted to help me while I was in treatment, but I often felt too independent to let them. As a cancer patient, I had lost control of my life. Being able to carry out all of my responsibilities was important to me. I was on the verge of tears describing my gratitude for their kindness to the interviewer, and a little ashamed that I hadn't let them help me more. They were probably feeling a little helpless too.
I also found myself getting angry again at the one person in my work situation who had not been supportive. My immediate supervisor usually responded to my requests to leave for medical appointments with irritation at the inconvenience, and sometimes even asked if I could reschedule. I could understand her irritation when I needed a substitute while I was out for chemo a half a day every three weeks and later for follow-up care. But I was not prepared for her attitude about my leaving after my teaching was done, but before the official end of my work day, to go to my daily radiation appointments. She acted as if I was shirking by leaving at 3:15 instead of 3:45. It wasn't as if I was off partying with the radiation techs!
Now some of this could have been my own hypersensitivity. If she happens to read this, she may be shocked that I felt that way, and respond with all the ways she thought she was being supportive. The interviewer asked how my supervisor could have helped me, and a torrent of suggestions poured out. She could have helped with my non-teaching duties by telling me not to worry about them until I was well. She could have stated to me that she wanted to help in any way possible and to let her know when I wasn't feeling well. She could have encouraged me to use the elevator instead trudging up the stairs on the days when I was most exhausted. There were other teachers who were willing to supervise the students on the stairs.
Contrast that with a recent event at my current work place. I spent much of the fall with my right arm wrapped in lymphedema bandages. They made it difficult to have legible writing on the board, but the biggest problem was how they interfered with typing. Typing isn't a teacher's main duty, but we do more than you might suppose. I spend a good part of every day responding to emails from parents, and typing up directions to activities for my students. The most intense spurt of typing I do at work is writing report card comments for my 75 students, and I have noticed lymphedema flare-ups after comment writing.
Faced with my realization that my lymphedema is now chronic and not occasional, I went to see my supervisor to let him know that I might be briefer with typed e-mails and comments these days. After some empathic support, he asked if I had ever considered voice recognition software. I had heard that it can be more trouble than it's worth, but I hadn't actually tried any recent versions. He wondered if I would be willing to give it a try. Two days later, our tech guru put a box with a voice recognition program in my hands.
It takes a while to train the software to recognize your accent, and it makes some hilarious mistakes in deciphering your message. One the whole, however, I have been amazed at how well it works. I don't have my software well-trained enough yet to make it less time-consuming than regular typing. But correcting the mistakes the software makes requires fewer keystrokes, which is what I need with my lymphedema. For someone whose main job is to type, this software could be the workplace accommodation she needs to keep her job and avoid going on disability.
The important thing is not the software itself, but what it represents about my current employer. I feel supported and valued. I will be less afraid to ask for help if future health issues crop up that require workplace accommodations. My voice was recognized!
I'm not sure what these two stories suggest you should do about asking for help in your workplace. I know that people do sometimes lose their jobs when they are not able to do everything they used to do. The American with Disabilities Act is supposed to protect workers, but it doesn't always turn out that way. In days of economic uncertainty, an employer can always find an excuse to let someone go. Cancer disability will never be given as the reason.
But employers want to keep good workers, and I suspect that most of us are too hesitant to speak up when we need help. If you have a strong track record of accomplishment in your job, your employer is probably more willing than you think to help you work through the cancer issues that affect your work. But no one can recognize your voice if you don't speak up.