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Silicon Valley on Breast Cancer Awareness: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Posted Oct 31 2012 6:08pm
fired for breast cancer, a fractured fairy tale I just had my last radiation treatment Sue texted me today, the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  

Also, she texted,  I was fired.

When I was a kid, I loved a series of offbeat cartoons called Fractured Fairy Tales.  The story of breast cancer, and what has happened to my best friend Sue, a technology executive, certainly qualifies as one.

  • In 2011, an estimated 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in women in the U.S.

Sue is one of them.  She’s Stage 3a, which, as anyone with even an iota of awareness of the disease knows, is not good at all.

Cancer is not a death sentence, a doctor recently told me. Treatments are much better than they used to be.  Many people live for years even with late stage cancer.  

He’s a cancer doctor, so he should know, so I let myself feel relieved, a welcome feeling as the statistics that I’ve been reading up on are anything but relieving.
  • About 12% of women - around 1 in 8 will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.
  • In 2011, 39,520 women in the U.S. died from breast cancer.
  • For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer.

I don’t let myself think about them, Sue says of the numbers, but I am a statistician by training, and I can’t help myself - I see stories in numbers.  There are no good numbers or bad numbers, one of my professors once commented. The meaning is in your head, not the number, was his reasoning, but I beg to differ. 


When it comes to something like breast cancer, therearegood numbers and bad numbers. The bad numbers, in Sue’s case, are the odds.  The good numbers offer hope - numbers like:  

  • In 2011, there were more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the US.
  • As of Jan. 1, 2009, there were about 2,747,459 women alive in the United States with a history of breast cancer. This includes women being treated and women who are disease-free.

You’re bad for business, Sue’s boss told her when she returned to work after surgery and her first chemo treatement. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo from the Wall Street Journal (When the Boss Has Cancer)  which opines  “As more U.S. executives undergo cancer treatment and survive, there is clearly life—and career advancement—after such a grave illness.”


Or so Sue thought.  After her surgery, I borrowed the house of a friend in wine country, and brought Sue out for the weekend.  A big lawn, a blue sky, some peace and quiet is what I had in mind after a double radical mastectomy,  but her employees and friends showed up in droves, anxious to see her and give - and get - her support.  


It wasn’t the restful weekend her body needed, but I could see how the way her employees rallied around her was good for her, how it gave her something to think about other than what was happening to her.


There may be no such thing as good numbers or bad numbers, but there are certainly companies that handle breast cancer in its employees in good ways and bad. 


You’re our island of sanity! That's what Sue's employees called her, and I thought that surely, she'd be in good hands with her company, but it didn't quite work out that way.  


The omens and portents weren't great but I was using my powers of magical thinking to convince myself that nothing further bad would, could happen to her, I felt sure.  Look how her employees loved her.  Look how she was feeling good enough to work even after her breasts were unceremoniously scooped out like rotten cantaloupes.  I held on to these outward signs of normalcy - these signs of how we needed her, and she us - like talismans.


How is this us? she asked me at one point, and it’s a thought that recurred repeatedly through the whole horror show of the removal of her breasts and going bald and staggering through weeks of chemo, radiation still in front of her, only to come out the other side with a pink slip and a pat on a head that was now as furry and bald as a baby turkey vulture.


Yep, you read that right. Sue (whose name means “joy of life” did you know that?) was fired while undergoing chemotherapy.  And that was just two months after returning to work from her bilateral mastectomy and being told to go home and not work as her "comings and goings" for medical appointments were "bad for business and disruptive to the team."  So much for magical thinking.


The ugliness of her company's behavior came as a surprise; the working weekend in wine country (oh how I wish I could get those precious hours back for my friend, and spend them on something better) was a hive of determined optimism, and I was cheered by the stories of two of the women there, both breast cancer survivors, and how their companies had rallied to support them.  


Some famous names made the list of good guys, including Larry Ellison of Oracle  and Marc Benioff of Silicon Valley heroes are often mythical, but the stories I heard that day of the support Ellison and Benioff offered their female execs with breast cancer was more than good, it was almost stunningly compassionate.


Wow, I thought as I listened.  Go tech guys! Being in technology myself, I was proud to feel associated with these stories of male executives supporting their female colleagues stricken with this breast cancer.  I was relieved, too - I thought, if the leaders are behaving this way, other Silicon Valley companies are bound to follow their example. 


But if Ellison and Benioff are heroes, by comparison the executives at Sue's firm were zeroes, firing Sue not once but twice.  It’s not because of the cancer, they told her; we were going to fire you ‘a long time ago’, but hadn't quite gotten around to it.  


The first firing was quickly followed by an offer to rehire her - presumably the HR department panicked when informed by Sue's boss that he’d just fired a bald-headed cancer survivor.   We didn't mean to fire you (or even mean to not fire you) they said; you can come back for a lower position and pay, how's that?


At one point, they confusedly issued a Reinstatement Letter which was notable for its claim that 1) they did not consider that they fired her 2) so certainly didn't need to rehire her, because she wasn't fired but 3) they were offering to rehire her anyway, never mind that they'd just told her they meant to fire her a long time ago.


Sue repeated all of this to me as it happened. As the fairy tale fractured further and further, I found myself thinking at least the brain fog that accompanies chemo would stop Sue from absorbing the full impact of losing her job and maybe even health insurance while the wounds on her chest were still raw, but no such luck.   She understood the implications perfectly.  If she went back now, everyone would see her as the executive the company meant to fire 'a long time ago'. She would go from the island of sanity her employees once called her, to the island of pariah-ville.  No matter how good of a manager you are, your employees can't afford to back what the company has defined as a losing horse. 


The final irony is being terminated during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, though maybe that will turn out to be a good thing...maybe the time is right to shine a light on the breast cancer support heroes - like Ellison and Benioff - and zeroes - like the Bad Technology company -  of Silicon Valley.  


Do you know anyone fired after a breast cancer diagnosis? I’d like to hear your story of the good, the bad, or the ugly way your company treated you.

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