Compassion Is Needed for Young People With the Big "C"

04/20/2015 06:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

Imagine you are a young adult, in your 20s or even early 30s. You haven't been feeling well lately, shake it off and then finally decide to make an appointment with your physician. After significant checkups, conversations and tests, you get some bad news delivered to you. You have Leukemia.

Imagine you are a 22 year old young woman; you've just started your first job in an investment firm on Wall Street. You go for your annual gynecological exam, your doctor feels something strange and sends you for a mammogram and ultrasound. Unfortunately, you have a breast cancer diagnosis.

Imagine, your 14 year old, or 7 year old is diagnosed with ____________ (fill in the blank). You have a job and need to take care of that family. Your child is scared, you and your mate are scared. Your job is fairly new, you don't have the full lay of the land about the company yet. Fortunately health benefits are in place. However, there will be the need for treatments for the child, with parental involvement all the time. You're concerned how the company will react. Additionally, there will be the isolation as parents with young children with this illness. Parents become caretakers in a deeper way and their plight is a challenge. After all, how many of their friends and co-workers will be taking care of seriously ill children. Where will their support come from?

These are common scenarios. Young people account for more new diagnoses each year then is even conceivable to me. I've heard estimates into the 70,000 range. When I was young, we hardly ever heard of someone young getting Cancer or other major illness. In high school, I was shocked when one of our football stars died suddenly on the field and it was discovered he had a heart murmur. But, then in my early 30's, my brother (age 27) died of melanoma. He was the only young person I knew who had cancer.

You know that I usually write about Cancer and illness in the workplace, so you might be wondering what this column is about in that domain. Well, major illness doesn't discriminate. You can easily be in your 20's or 30's and be a "survivor" of cancer, with the possibility of return and the lurking fear about it. Or, you can be in your 20's or 30's and newly diagnosed.
The good news is, there are resources especially for young people. There are conferences, trainings and more emphasizing some of the unique needs they have. There are "experts" in dealing with illness in the workplace for the younger population. Do we need to differentiate? Probably. Each generation has their needs.

One very impressive organization is Stupid, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It is the largest charity to address cancer in young adults and focuses on advocacy, research, support, outreach, awareness, mobile health and social media.

Each year they have a large annual event that brings hundreds of attendees from around the world together. This year, in preparation, they just completed a Road Trip, spanning about 5,000 miles that took them from Boston to Denver, stopping along the way in cities to meet young people with Cancer through community groups. One such stop was in Austin, TX, where my son lives. He had melanoma at age 35 (he's now 37) and used this meeting as an opportunity to connect with others.

This week, in Denver, they will be having their annual convention called CancerCon 2015. One of the most impressive presentations will be a panel covering all the special work-related needs of young people with cancer. They'll share how they should handle themselves at work, their rights of privacy, their relationships with co-workers, advocacy and more.

Imagine one of the earlier scenarios I mentioned. You're young, vibrant, excited about your career and then "wham"... a diagnosis that knocks the wind out of you. There aren't many handbooks for how to handle this, how to navigate the systems at work, who to talk to about it, what to say or not say, what you need or don't need.

When "older" workers get diagnosed, it's more expected. Everyone is sorry and wants to know how to help; but there is more awkwardness with someone young or the child of someone. If you're a manager, you might definitely feel uncomfortable, scared, not know what to say or how to comfort. Perhaps you have a child of your own and can hardly stand to consider what it might be like. Or, perhaps you are still young yourself and freak out, knowing that statistically it could be you.

While there's a great deal of common sense about how to handle the situation at work, there is also the constraints of laws and limitations. Navigating all of that is tricky.

My son works for a very small company in Austin, TX. They were amazing when he was diagnosed. There were many doctor visits prior, second opinions. His melanoma was on his scalp and surgery was challenging. While the doctor indicated he might only need a couple of days to recuperate, he actually needed a full week. The company didn't blink an eye. They were very supportive and really came through for him.

So, I'm wondering what some of your concerns are about being a young person with a serious diagnosis OR being a manager who supervises a young person with that diagnoses. Are there questions you have, comments you want to make? How can you best support them, help them keep their jobs, make some concessions?

I'd love your comments.In the next blog entry, I'll offer some suggestions.

Ann Fry is the Workplace Cancer and Disease Crisis Coach. She trains managers to engage and support people at work who are impacted by Cancer or a major illness (either their own or that of a loved one.) She's the person to call when the Executive teams needs to "triage" and sort through the crisis when one of their own is impacted. She can facilitate the conversation and help set the strategy for moving forward.