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Living and working with illness

Posted on June 18, 2007

By Joan Eisenstodt

In the '80s, I asked an industry association if I could moderate a session to talk about AIDS and our industry.  Too many of my friends and colleagues were HIV+ and some were dying; our industry was not talking about the personal and professional impact.  The room was packed with industry professionals anxious to get the topic out of the closet so that we could address what it meant for individuals and our industry.

For many years, the "C" word (cancer) was whispered.  There was a sense that if one said it out loud, you'd 'catch it' just like you'd 'catch' AIDS if you said the word or were around people who had it.

We who were hospitable were reticent to show vulnerability when it came to illness and our work.  It was believed that if one were sick, and others knew, it would be the end of a career.

About 3 years ago, two industry friends, one an ovarian cancer survivor and another a multiple cancer survivor, suggested we do a session at an Meeting Professionals International (MPI) conference to talk about living and working while undergoing treatment for cancer or other major illness or being a caregiver for someone while also working.  It was initially done under the MPI Women's Leadership Initiative and was stated for 'women only.'  We thought that if we could provide a safe atmosphere in which women could talk about intimate issues without fear we could begin to dispel some myths and offer a support network.  These friends asked if I would moderate the session and I readily agreed.  MPI agreed that it was an important topic and the session was held.

Into that session came many woman, one of whom had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and hadn't told her employer, another, a woman who had undergone brain cancer and was in recovery, and others who were in various stages of various illnesses, and still others who wanted to hear what was said to be personally and professionally prepared. 

Two men also came in and asked if they could stay.  One, Jaimie, was a young colon cancer survivor; the other, Chuck, was someone caring for a friend with a major illness. 

What resulted in and as a result of that session was the ability to talk about working in an industry where we all believe we have to be upbeat all the time - we are, after all,  about hospitality! - whether we feel well or not.  Many people shared their personal stories about employers who were great and allowed time off; others, and in particular the woman who was just diagnosed with breast cancer, who needed to know how to talk about it in her employment situation where she was the only woman. 

We cried and we laughed. We shared and we discussed the importance of early detection.  I shared my story of having my first colonoscopy just before my 50th birthday and the diagnosis: the discovery of 3 very small polyps with the highest level of pre-cancerous cells that, had they not been found and removed,  would have resulted in full-blown cancer in months. 

It was the first time that many revealed their vulnerabilities and their fears and where others talked about how to manage illness and work.

From that session, came opportunities to re-create the experience at another MPI meeting and at the 2007 Exhibitor Show.  Again, this July in Montreal, the session will be held at MPI's WEC where different people will talk and share and learn how to cope.

In MiGuru this week, you'll get to hear the voices of some of those who were part of these sessions and read about the experiences and the need for these discussions.  We are only as good professionally as our health allows and our employers or clients understand.  If you have a story to tell, add your comments to the end of the Guru section.  If you'd like me to post it without your name, email me at [email protected] and I'm glad to post it without your name and hiding your identity.

We still need to do lots of work when it comes to healthcare and our attitudes about those who are sick and want to work.


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Gloria Nelson, CSEP

Joan, I am so pleased to see such an important topic discussed. We're not only dealing with our own health, but parents, spouses and others as well. In addition, many are "sandwiched" between caring for ailing parents and having children still at home making it all the more challenging.

As someone who has a spouse who is fully disabled years before either one of us could have anticipated something of this magnitude happening, I look forward to the "stories" of others and how they've traversed life's challenging waters.

A colleague and friend who is a news anchor lost his wife to cancer. He has spent years going from company to company in our region talking to employers and also their employees about developing a heart of compassion. He'd indicated one of the biggest challenges with those who are gainfully employed by others who have availed the FLA (Family Leave Act) or required to take additional time off for doctor's appointments and more...this has been historically perceived negatively in the marketplace, so he's set about rectifying this perception and sharing how challenging it was for him to be a caregiver to his beloved wife....and then a single dad after she lost her battle.

This is a great topic and I look forward to hear what others have to say. Thanks for always being of "good courage", Joan.

Gloria Nelson, CSEP
Gloria Nelson Event Design, LLC
[email protected]

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