“One thing that shouldn't have surprised me perhaps, but did, was how psychologically important work was for a lot of women and how that cut across different cultures.” — Dr. Victoria Blinder, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Medical Oncologist
Working Well When You’re Unwell
Save the boobies. Put your breast foot forward. Fight for the cure. October is awash with pink. Your favorite brands are donating to find a cure. Your favorite celebrities are wearing nicely tied ribbons. Friends are walking in pink high socks and tutus. Except there’s nothing cute about breast cancer. There’s nothing fun or catchy or market driven about watching your best friend lose all their hair or teaching your kids what to say when they have to dial 911 or getting your partner’s wedding rings resized.
It’s the thick of October, and amidst the sea of pink, breast cancer is still running rampant. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s estimated that in 2018 alone there will be 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer in women and 2,550 new cases in men in the United States. The reality is that you or someone you know has probably been diagnosed at some point with this disease. And it doesn’t just affect your personal life. It doesn’t pick and choose what parts it influences. It affects every single aspect of who you are, including your career.
As a Patient
Know that every decision you make is unique to you, your situation, and your diagnosis. For some people, continuing to work helps provide some sense of normalcy. Pfizer and Cure conducted research that found that “77 percent of working women with breast cancer, including those with metastatic disease, feel that working aids in their recovery – a view shared almost unanimously by healthcare professionals, who were also surveyed (92 percent)”. If you’re someone that wants to keep their work routine, or has to work due to financial reasons, you’re not alone.
Medical oncologist with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dr. Victoria Blinder, has found through her studies that patients typically enjoy working through their cancer diagnosis. Psychologically, it is proven to provide a sense of control for patients who don’t feel in control of their diagnosis. If you do choose to continue working, know that it is up to you to decide who you tell. We recommend telling your boss, as they can work with you to make special arrangements for scheduling and workarounds. If you do tell your boss, know your rights in regards to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medial Leave Act. Your boss will then most likely go to HR and discuss your employee rights. You should also go to HR so that you know exactly what rights you have in regards to scheduling flexibility and making important arrangements. Know that telling your supervisor or HR does not mean that you have to disclose any information with your colleagues. However, if you do decide to tell, consider starting with a trusted coworker and letting the news spread gradually. Know that people’s immediate reactions will most likely involve wanting to help in some way. This is natural. If you feel like there is anything they can do, don’t be afraid to ask for the help. Sometimes using the extra hands for meals or watching the kids can be extremely beneficial. You may be surprised at how willing people are to lend a helping hand to you. Most importantly, tend to your own needs and know that work, though important, is secondary to your health.
As a Partner
Loving someone with a breast cancer diagnosis affects your worklife as well. You may find that you need more flexibility in your schedule for doctor’s appointments, treatments, and hospital visits. Be prepared to discuss these changes with your boss and your HR department. It’s important to establish a strong sense of communication from the get-go so that no parties are surprised or taken aback by last minute requests. People will want to help. Accept it when you need it. Reach out for support when it’s necessary. Remember that your partner comes first, and that relationships will always be more important than jobs.
Know that your coworker’s decision to tell or not tell you directly about their diagnosis most likely has nothing to do with you, as it’s a very personal choice and differs from person to person. If they do decide to tell you, continue to treat them normally but offer your understanding. Be sincere when asking how they’re doing, and be ready to field questions from those that are curious. Even if you assume that they will not be able to attend functions or parties, try to include them on your invite list as it will allow them to feel part of the team, and they’ll most likely appreciate the sentiment.
If you have an employee with a breast cancer diagnosis, know that them telling you doesn’t necessarily mean that they have told the entire office. If they choose to do so, it should be on their own time. You should, however, give HR a heads up and discuss sick leave entitlements as well as arrange for a temp if necessary. Be flexible. Your employee probably would like to keep a sense of normalcy in their life by having a stable work environment, but know that flexibility is key in scheduling and unforeseen circumstances. If you have the ability to help out financially with medical bills as an office, you’ll want to discuss that with your employee as that can make an incredible difference in their everyday stressors.
No matter your role in the workplace, everyone is affected by a diagnosis. If you have other helpful tips to deal with breast cancer in the workplace, we’d love to hear them. Please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And it is Breast Cancer Awareness month, please know the signs and symptoms and get yourselves checked out regularly!