To work or not to work when serious illness strikes

If feasible, work can provide a distraction from necessary treatment and allow a form of ‘normal’ life to continue


Being told you have a life-affecting disease or illness can obviously come as a shock. But as people come to terms with their diagnosis, many are also forced to consider whether or not to keep working.

Financial concerns mean some of us might struggle if forced to step back from our roles, even temporarily. But often those who are more financially secure are also reluctant to give up working.

When James Dimon, chief executive of the US’s biggest bank JP Morgan, recently announced he had been diagnosed with throat cancer but intended to keep working while undergoing treatment, investors were largely supportive of the move.

In choosing to stay on in his role, Dimon was following other high-powered individuals such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who also vowed to keep going after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012.

Closer to home, Bank of Ireland’s chief executive Richie Boucher has chosen instead to take leave of absence in the month of August to undergo a medical procedure to remove a cancerous polyp.

The choice of whether to take time off depends not only on our financial circumstances but also on the type of job we have and the role it serves in our lives.

“For some, major illness can be life-threatening. For others, it is a treatable chronic illness that they learn to manage,” said Dee McKiernan, a counselling psychologist with experience of working as a psychologist in a hospital setting with cancer patients.

“Work can be a support, a place that provides structure to the day and gives people a sense of identity and normality when the rest of their life is consumed with illness and treatment regimes. It can provide a distraction from the treatment and allow life to function in some kind of a ‘normal’ fashion.”

When former government minister Tony Killeen (62) was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2008, he decided to keep working for a few years before eventually bowing out of politics. Mr Killeen said that, in hindsight, he’s not sure continuing to work was the right decision although he’s not sure if he could have made any other one at that time.

“I used to talk with Brian Lenihan about whether we were doing a disservice to cancer sufferers by continuing to work while we were undergoing treatment because the public didn’t see the times when we were ill and finding it hard going. I wondered whether there were unsympathetic employers who sought to get employees back to work ahead of time by using us as an example of people who were working despite being sick,” he said.

At the time of his diagnosis, the former Fianna Fail TD for Clare was serving as minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, where he was involved in drawn-out EU negotiations over quotas for fishermen.

“I did consider taking a step back on the advice of doctors at the time of my diagnosis, but I knew that dropping someone else into the role at that particular juncture would have been difficult so I sort of muddled along for a while and managed to work fairly well once I discovered the days when the effects of the treatment would be worse,” he said.

“I also don’t know if psychologically I could have given up work at that point. If I’d have given up ministerial duties I’d have probably thrown myself into constituency work instead and might not have been better off. As it was, I continued as a minister and only reluctantly gave it up just before the general election in 2011 when those that were close to me managed to talk sense into me and my doctors warned against me staying in the job.”

Since retiring, Mr Killeen has worked as a volunteer on the Irish Cancer Society’s Survivors Supporting Survivors programme, which provides emotional and practical support to newly diagnosed patients.

He said being in the public eye meant that when he received his diagnosis he didn’t feel he could talk to others who had been in his situation, something he thinks would have helped.

“My advice to anyone told they have a life-affecting illness would be to take the amount of time off work that you’re advised to do if you can afford to,” he said.

When Paul Lannon (43) was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in May 2011 and told he had a year to live, he too vowed to keep working.

Lannon, who was employed as vice president of operations at JP Morgan, told his managers he wanted to stay in the role, despite it involving lots of overseas travel.

“I think what I said was that I wanted to go on until the time that I affected the job or it affected me,” he said.

Mr Lannon, from Knocktopher, Co Kilkenny, but now living in Drogheda, did eventually have to give up the job last June. But he’s glad he was able to keep working after the diagnosis.

“Being able to work made a huge difference as it meant I wasn’t focused on my condition all the time. It served as a great distraction,” he said.

Mr Lannon, who now volunteers with the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, is enjoying life since retiring but he’s keen to advice others not to make hasty decisions about giving up work.

“I would say that anyone receiving a big diagnosis should be careful about making drastic changes unless they need to. It is three years since I was diagnosed and if I’d have jacked in the job back then I’d have been in a really bad place with no finances to support me now.

“I think people should take every day as it comes and try and keep some normality till you can digest the news. The most important thing though is to keep positive because that’s what will make you able to deal with whatever comes next,” he said.