A Chicago firm is confronting head-on a challenge that companies quietly grapple with on an all-too-regular basis: employees diagnosed with cancer or caring for someone who is diagnosed with cancer.
Diana Ware kept brushing away tears as she showed off the new “privacy rooms” at Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, cozy retreats where employees battling cancer, either as patients or caregivers, can take a break during the workday.
Outfitted with recliners, privacy screens and shelves to hold blankets and personal items, the rooms, unveiled in January, represent a key step in Ware’s vision for Mesirow CARES, a program launched a year ago to steer employees with cancer to educational resources and workplace mentors for support.
Ware, managing director and risk manager at Mesirow, said she could have used the program herself after she was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago.
When she returned to work 10 months later, in poor physical condition after severe complications from chemotherapy, she worried that co-workers might stare, didn’t know what to say to them, and found herself unable to spend more than two hours at the office before heading home to rest.
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“We would like to share this,” Ware, 61, said of the company’s CARES initiative. “I hope this is in every company in 10 years.”
Mesirow, a private firm with 1,200 employees, is confronting head-on a challenge that companies quietly grapple with on an all-too-regular basis: employees diagnosed with cancer or caring for someone who is diagnosed with cancer, leaving them exhausted, fretting about finances and desperate to find medical solutions but not knowing where to start.
Cancer support programs like Chicago-based Imerman Angels, which connects people with mentors who have been through it before, get calls from employers seeking help or from employees who have been referred by their human resources departments.
But “Mesirow took it a step further by fostering it internally,” said Jeanne Long, director of program and outreach at Imerman Angels, which shared its mentor training program with Mesirow.
“The company is extending themselves to be a caring company, which I think is remarkable,” Long said.
Mesirow had lost several key employees to cancer before Ware initiated the CARES program, including longtime CEO Jim Tyree, who died in 2011, five months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
“Almost everybody in the place was just paralyzed,” said Richard Price, who had been at the company for 30 years when he succeeded Tyree as CEO. “We went to Gilda’s Club for counseling, but there wasn’t a centralized place (at work) where you go to say, ‘Who do I talk to? What do I do?’”
Ware, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2013, spent months recovering after a lung infection brought on by chemotherapy resulted in a 13-day coma, which had doctors cautioning her that the best she could hope for was to one day be able to stand again. She said she thought up the idea for a workplace cancer program during the hours she spent unable to do anything but think.
When she approached Price with the proposal shortly after her return to work, she said he told her without hesitation, “Let’s get it done.”
A committee of six people came up with CARES — which stands for Cancer, Awareness, Resources, Education, Support — the centerpiece of which is a robust intranet site containing resources on finances, insurance, doctors, meals and other cancer-related information, plus advice on what to say and how to help when a co-worker is navigating illness. It pairs with a mentorship program connecting patients and caregivers with colleagues who have been through the cancer wringer.
In the year since those programs launched, 15 employees have signed up to receive mentoring. Twenty have signed up to be mentors, who go through training.
Jennifer Lockbaum, a client services manager in the wealth advisers group, was diagnosed with DCIS, the earliest form of breast cancer, four months after the program launched. Through her mastectomy and the surgical complications that followed, she said it has been helpful to know she is not alone and that the company stands behind her.
“It’s this little club that you don’t really want to be a part of, but once you’re in it, you find out that there are other people, and to me that was very comforting,” said Lockbaum, 46.
Lockbaum said she got cards from co-workers she didn’t know, plus a blanket that communications manager Taryn Gluskin, a CARES committee member, knits for each employee diagnosed with cancer. Gluskin said she has knitted 10 blankets in the past year.
Mike Alesia, senior vice president in insurance services, said that when he learned his father had prostate cancer, weeks after Mesirow launched the program, he had a flashback to when his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, 12 years before, when he had no idea what to do.
“I always had this guilt that I didn’t do enough,” Alesia, 44, said of his mother, who died less than a year after her diagnosis.
But in his father’s case, Alesia got advice through CARES about alternative doctors to try and compiled a 2-inch-thick folder of research, half of which he pulled from the CARES intranet site. His father’s condition has improved considerably.
Mesirow’s three privacy rooms were built in an unused part of the office with a separate entrance. The main room, a bright and well-appointed sanctuary for cancer patients and caregivers, is named Sharon’s Sunshine Room, after a beloved longtime employee, Sharon Morrone, who died last year after a battle with cancer that left her blind.
“She was such an inspiration,” said Ware, describing how Morrone worked almost until the end of her life. “She still knew everybody by the sounds of their voices.”
Next door is the Mentor Room, an office with a developing library including books such as “Healing Through Humor,” where employees can do research, make phone calls to doctors and insurers or meet with their mentors. The third room is the Respite Room, equipped with comfortable gliders, where people with other chronic but noncontagious illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, can go for a rest.
All materials and construction services were donated by vendors.
Ware said that being able to work and feel connected to the office even as she was still recovering got her through her illness, as “even at the worst, I felt like I had a purpose.”
Now in remission, she is hopeful Mesirow’s program inspires other employers to follow suit.
“My family hates when I say this, but God let me live for a reason,” Ware said. “There is a reason. And I have to now help other people.”