May 20, 2006 6:00 AM PDT

Cancer survivor's advice to programmers, others

No one wants to talk about the "c-word"--cancer--or at least that's an assumption that often makes the topic taboo around the water cooler.

But software developer Douglas Reilly is advocating a more open approach, one inspired by his own experience coming out as a cancer survivor in a field where a single person can hold the key to an entire company's success.

Douglas Reilly
Douglas Reilly, and his wife, Jean

"You do need to have some sort of contingency planning in place," says Reilly, emphasizing that source code needs to be available for whoever takes over during interruptions in work.

Reilly, a resident of Brick, N.J., who owns a small software development company called Access Microsystems, says he has a genetic predisposition toward cancers of all sorts. At 50, he's already licked liver cancer, and he's now fighting a type of colon cancer--mucinous adenocarcinoma--considered to be incurable. But he's surpassed the age of his father and brother, who both died by age 48 of cancers they hardly talked about with anyone outside the family, let alone to employers.

Having experienced both a treatable cancer and one that--for now anyway--is not, Reilly, a father of two, felt compelled to share his knowledge with colleagues in the technology industry. The result was an article, titled "Coming out as a Cancer Survivor: A Guide for Software Developers," that Reilly posted earlier this year on the Red Gate Software site, Simple Talk.

Reilly's piece quickly created an online buzz, which was fueled by a posting on the popular technology news forum Slashdot. In plain terms, Reilly discusses the range of cancers, from cured to curable to incurable. He also notes the rise in cancer survivorship thanks to advances in medical treatments and cites inspirational survival stories such as that of professional cyclist Lance Armstrong (Reilly himself likes to bike).

In the article, which has gotten more than 50,000 page views on Simple Talk, according to Reilly, he also gives advice on how to break the news to co-workers, recommending you let them know in general terms and not bring it up over and over again.

"Unless you want to be known as 'cancer guy' (or gal), let others lead any further discussion of what's going on with your care," wrote Reilly, who specializes in ASP.net and mobile development and has authored several programming books.

Privacy laws in some cases prohibit employers from discussing an employee's medical condition, according to several human-resources experts. And the employee is not legally required to share a thing. But Reilly believes developers have a moral responsibility to do so.

While tailored toward developer-types, much of Reilly's advice can be applied more broadly, such as: "Make sure you are not indispensable."

He also encourages those with cancer to do independent online research. Even the best doctors leave their work behind at the end of the day, he notes. "If you don't take control of managing your disease, chances are you're going to get so-so treatment," he says.

Some of the feedback to the article, particularly on Slashdot, was less than positive. One reader, for example, had trouble understanding how someone with terminal cancer could even be bothered with source codes and clients.

But overall, readers were thankful to Reilly for opening the topic up for discussion. Reilly was particularly gratified to hear from those who were going through similar experiences and felt his article helped.

Shachar Shemesh, for example, an Israeli programming consultant, read Reilly's article just before he got final confirmation of his Hodgkin's disease. Shemesh took Reilly's advice and shared news of his treatable lymphoma with clients and co-workers, preparing them for his impending chemotherapy. He was amazed by the positive response.

"Practically all of them took it well," said Shemesh, who recently founded Lingnu Open Source Consulting. "I haven't lost business because of it. Everyone was really supportive and understanding. There was no negative reaction."

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24 comments

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Genetically Predisposed...
Are humans not messing up future generations chances of survival by passing on these genetic predispositions? Ok, its great that we can survive against these disabilities with our technology, but in the long run, won't the human race be worse off by having people survive these things long enough to pass to their off spring. There's likely a compounding of effects as we each survive genetic problems that would be fatal in a normal world run by natural selection.

Then again evolution is a LIE.
Posted by DynamicStability (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A fuller view of evolution
Your account of evolution is too simplistic. Firstly, an individual predisposed to cancer usually does not get cancer until after they have children (cancer is usually late onset). Therefore, regardless of our technology, their genes will be passed on.

However, one must also consider the effects of a child's parent(s) dying at a younger than normal age from cancer. If, on the whole, a parent dying young from cancer causes their children to have less children than people whose parents do not die young and of cancer then those genes are differentially passed on at a lesser rate. Only if the above premise is true will our technology have any effect (positive or negative) on the evolution of genetic predisposition to cancer in humans. In our society I doubt the premise is true, but let's assume it is and see where we end up...

Probably the most important counter-argument that can be raised in this forum is that the benefits of cancer survivors passing on their genes probably far outweighs any negative. While we are assuming this will raise the rate of genetic predisposition to cancer in the future we have to weigh that against the loss of all the useful genes passed on. For example, take the man from the article, the human race is probably better off with his genes that allow him to be creative, industrious and stable enough to raise a family.
Posted by someexistence (5 comments )
Link Flag
Limits to Knowledge...
I of course concur that knowing the details of my disease, I would not want to bring children into the world who would suffer from this disease. That said, at the time I was making that decision, my knowledge of the disease was imperfect and incomplete. I expect there were folks out there back in the late 70's who did know all the details (I knew only of polyps in the colon, which could be easily removed), you have to recall that there was no Internet back then, and you were only as smart as the local medical specialist.
Posted by DouglasReilly (1 comment )
Link Flag
my best friend told me she was dying yesterday
She has an inoperable tumor on her neck up into her brain. She
thought she had a piched nerve. Because she's a key employee
everyone at work knows, although she has not told her family
yet. She'll get a firm diagnosis this week, and then tell them, but
we all know there is very little time for her to get her affairs in
order. I'm so sad. So is she. "This sucks, on ice!" was her
response.

She's the smartest person I ever met, and a saint, besides. I'm
going to miss her.

The flip side of love is grief. Love anyone or anything and when
he, she, or it dies, you grieve, or he, she, or it grieves for you.
Those love songs never mention that aspect of that emotion.
Better to love and grieve than never love, I have always thought.
Posted by JackfromBerkeley (136 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not yet...
She isn't gone yet...best of luck.
Posted by DynamicStability (19 comments )
Link Flag
There's an easy cure for cancer
Hi Jack, show her these documents:

www.JeffBowman.com/Health
Posted by intexx (16 comments )
Link Flag
Regarding: A Guide for Software Developers
Douglas, I was recently diagnosed with incurable Leukemia (CLL/PL) after a routine checkup. Your advice is appreciated and I wish I had read it a few months ago. Even so, I'm very lucky to work for a great employer and a programming team. I told my boss and immediate team members soon after the diagnosis. As time went on, upper management was also told.

As you mentioned in your article, Consider moving to a different job - I did. To reduce my stress levels, I volunteered to permanently perform one of my many multi-tasking jobs and moved from programmer to prototyper. It was not an easy decision but it was a good one. Prototyping still requires programming knowledge and I'm enjoying the task of building this new team. We have even won a battle or two in creating, documenting, and standardizing the department's prototyping process.

I'm also fortunate in that I can work from home after a chemo cycle. One last cycle to go then quarterly tracking.

I have found that telling and working with your employer is the best way to go. After initially informing my immediate team members about the cancer, we usually don't talk about it unless they bring it up. My boss and I regularly discuss my treatment schedule and overall health in order to help make our decisions.

Overall, I consider myself lucky to have an employer, boss, and coworkers who have been very instrumental in helping me deal with cancer.

Don
Posted by dneizer (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
There's an easy cure for cancer
See www.JeffBowman.com/Health
Posted by intexx (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Careful...
A quick runthrough of that oxygenated water document sure makes is seem a bit suscpect and based around conspiracy theories. Not to mention that you must be careful with ozone as it can cause health problems.

And both documents seem to point to buying more material on the subject.
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
its realy good to have a forsight and concentrate on future
I am a hodgkin survivor and currently working in an Mgmt consultancy, I have not even disclosed this to my current employer, I think it is really good to take the life on a positive note
Posted by g_saurabh (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
good idea, bad idea?
Just thinking that you are very fortunate to work in such a supportive environment. I am not so sure that I would be able to keep my job if I needed that much time off for a diagnosis of cancer. Because I'm a "one-person band" (PC term?) for a lot of functions, I do have things written down on how to perform the tasks I do - it is basically a job requirement. If I got cancer, I am pretty sure that I would not be kept on unless I worked no matter how badly I felt, because that's how things are now. If you own your own company, you're better off in some ways - customers are more likely to be understanding as you're dealing on a high level. But for the average employee in a larger organization, someone sick means to the "bosses" that the functioning of the organization is lowered and that person is going to be watched, and possibly replaced.
Posted by bacrnbsed (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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