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Cancer and Your Career

by Ruth Oratz, MD, FACP

Wellness image

Communicate with your workplace through meetings, e-mail, phone calls, or video conferences.

Once a cancer diagnosis is made, normal life is upended. Daily routines are immediately interrupted as the urgency of dealing with cancer rises to first priority. Medical consultations and diagnostic tests must be scheduled. Processing information about prognosis, treatment decisions, and side effects are the first steps in getting organized. However, in the midst of all of this scheduling, testing, and planning, it is essential to recognize the emotional and psychological impact of cancer on your personal and family life, your relationships, and your career.

Questions about returning to work are often amongst the most challenging for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer: Who do I tell? What should I say? When do I do it? What does this mean for my job? Will I be able to work? Can I lose my job? Just as assembling a medical team and organizing a treatment plan is critical, having an action plan for returning to work is necessary. This plan should allow you to communicate effectively about your cancer and maintain your privacy while also allowing for appropriate accommodations so that treatment can proceed.

Consult with Your Healthcare Team
Discuss work-related issues with your healthcare team. Have a clear understanding of your diagnosis and treatment plan. Make sure that your doctor and the nurses who will be caring for you know about the demands of your job. They will have insight and advice on how to manage work during treatment.

Questions about returning to work are often amongst the most challenging.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Ruth Oratz

Communicate with Coworkers and Supervisors
You are not obligated to tell your employer or coworkers about your cancer. However, if you are requesting a workplace accommodation or are unable to perform the normal function of your job, it is important for your direct supervisor and employer to be informed. Although this may seem uncomfortable at first, it will protect you and help you make appropriate accommodations at work throughout your treatment and recovery.

How open you are with your coworkers about your cancer is a personal decision. Determine whom you are most comfortable sharing this news with and who really needs to know. This will vary for each individual and for each work situation. The human resources department is often a good place to start. Even in a small workplace, there is generally one person who can help guide you. Assess which of your coworkers will be affected by changes in your work program and inform them of your diagnosis. Recognize that each of us will need to ask for help at some point. Don’t be surprised if your colleagues are willing to help you.

You can begin to share news about your diagnosis as soon as you feel ready. Once you have a clear picture of your treatment plan, schedule, and expected side effects, you can begin to discuss the details with your supervisor and coworkers.

Know Your Rights
Be informed about company policy. Learn what your company policies are regarding sick leave, flexible work schedules, telecommuting, part-time options, short-term and long-term disability, and leaves of absence. Find out about your legal rights and the benefits provided by your health insurance, disability insurance, and other policies. Talk to other cancer survivors about how they dealt with returning work.

Devise a Plan
Work with your supervisor and colleagues to identify your primary job responsibilities, determine which duties and responsibilities you may hand over to others while you are going through treatment and recovery, and figure out how you can stay involved even if you are not able to work full time. Identify a point person to serve as liaison between you and your workplace. Communicate on an ongoing basis through regular meetings, e-mail, phone calls, or video conferences.

Be Sensitive to Others
Recognize that many of your coworkers will help and support you, and that you also have an obligation to be fair, honest, and considerate toward them. Mutual respect and shared responsibility will benefit everyone.

Coping with cancer presents challenges in every aspect of life. As you consider how to integrate treatment and recovery into your work life, remember that you are not alone. Colleagues and coworkers have also faced personal crises and will most likely be supportive. Turn to your own inner strength and discern what you can and cannot do. Be honest with yourself and with those around you. In keeping open channels of communication, you will be better able to cope with the impact of cancer on your career.

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Dr. Ruth Oratz is a board certified medical oncologist who specializes in treating women with breast cancer and other malignancies. She recently established The Women’s Oncology & Wellness Practice in New York, NY, and is a clinical associate professor of Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2009.