How to Take Control of Your Job When You Get Really Sick

07/27/2010 04:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Jim was diagnosed with prostate cancer at 54. John suffered a heart attack at age 42. Sarah underwent surgery and chemo for breast cancer at 48. Each one lived through the terror of illness, the agony of prolonged recuperation, and the stigma of sickness. They all returned to work. Jim, who had elected radiation therapy, which he received at dawn before work, decided to safeguard his job by keeping his cancer a secret from everyone. But for the others, especially those who had to take time off to recover from surgery, questions arose as they wondered whether they would be able to keep their jobs -- or even whether they still wanted them.

Most often, however, we return, gratefully, to our work places and hope to fit in as usual. Yet in the minds of our bosses and co-workers, there is no "usual" anymore. They are nervous, even afraid of us and "it" -- the unmentionable disease. Unlike Jim who could take his therapy without anyone noticing, most of us can't pretend it didn't happen because everyone knows it did.

So how do you cope with coming back? As in all of life, it's up to the one who changes to make it comfortable for everyone else, even though it doesn't feel fair. Therefore, you have to come back in, make up your work, and educate those around you who are holding their collective breath. Talk about it a bit and reassure everyone else. You must.

Briefly tell people, individually or in small groups over lunch or before meetings what happened, what you experienced, and what you learned. And try to share some comforting health statistics --"Did you know that the survival rate for women with early localized breast cancer is 88 percent?" But don't go on about it. Don't make it your only conversation. Don't make your disease define you. Closely monitor yourself. A little humor, too, goes a long way; it helps to develop a comic's repertoire to ease dealing with everyday stress.

Yet, without getting paranoid, watch for signs that you are already being pushed out -- your phone calls and emails don't come so regularly; you're not included in meetings or those planning sessions for future projects; you are treated too sympathetically; your boss soft-pedals what ought to be straight-out talk. You can't be passive now even though you may still be in recovery. You must be pro-active without showing resentment about having to do it. Your task is to re-enter and reassure. If you don't, unspoken fear of your illness will take you down.

There's often a silver lining after illness strikes, one that can impel change. Upheaval forces us to reevaluate our lives, certainly more than just take it for granted. It makes us question what we enjoy and what we don't, what we still want to achieve and what we're satisfied with, what we need versus what we want. Sometimes after regaining health, the answers shock us even though during that road to recovery all we could think of is regaining the status quo.

Your point of re-entry into work might also serve as a threshold for your future and provide an opportune time to ask yourself some questions about what you really want to do now that you are well. Continue in the same job? Transfer to another one within the company? If you want to change within your organization, then figure out the benefits to your employer and suggest ideas to contribute in a new way. Transferring to trainer, adviser, consultant, or staffer can be the start of something longed-for and perhaps now possible.

Or maybe you have already finished your old work and yearn to do something that you have always wanted but never done, or else something that can only occur to you at this point. For some, our sick leave pays off in unexpected bounty when we find ourselves so profoundly involved with our illness and recovery that we forge a completely new career based solely on these experiences. It might mean teaching coping skills to patients in the doctor's office, joining associations specifically formed to help -- such as the American Heart or Cancer Associations -- and getting involved in support groups, information guides, promoting or fund-raising or advocating. In this unexpected way, some of us find a new calling from the very crisis that we have endured.

Whether you want to get back from where you were or embark on something new, coming back from illness can offer new insight and opportunity.

I'd like to hear your comeback stories.

Make your luck happen!

Adele Scheele, Career Coach
Author, Skills for Success and Launch Your Career in College