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Early Work Decisions

Posted 3/13/2015

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  Making difficult decisions about work is an ongoing issue for many of us. At the time of diagnosis, my focus today, there are questions about time off and what will be possible during treatment and what are my benefits and how will my manager and co-workers react? As treatment progresses, your physical limits will become clear, and it will be easier (although maybe not more positive) to think about what is possible. If you take time off, there will be plenty of decisions further down the road about when and how to return to work. And, as time goes on and your begin to process issues of survivorship, there may be questions about what you want to do with your time?

“You have cancer.” Within the first few moments of hearing those words, most people worry most about mortality, followed quickly by their children and family and then their jobs. No matter what kind of work we do, it is a big part of our lives and a cancer diagnosis and treatment will impact our responsibilities and routines. Here is the very first thing to do: Talk with your manager and/or HR to understand the options and to appreciate the benefits that are available. You are fortunate if you have sick time, and even more fortunate if you also have short and long term disability policies. Remember the FMLA which protects you and your job. Many people find it invaluale to register (talk with HR) for this program; although time off through the FMLA is unpaid, your job is held, and it is insured that you can take the time as you need it.

 A very helpful resource is Cancer and Careers:

If you have concerns about income during treatment, ask to speak with an oncology social worker at your hospital or doctor’s office. She will be informed about any state or federal entitlements and about local resources. This is not a moment to be hesitant to ask for help .There is assistance out there, but you have to let someone know that you need it.

Here are some of the other important issues:

Work Schedule:

** Can you physically and emotionally work, full or part time, during your planned treatment? Your doctor cannot fully predict how you will react to treatment. If at all possible, delay a decision until you have had surgery or the first cycle of chemotherapy. At that point, you will be in a much better position to decide what is possible.
** Continuing to work can help normalize your life and your feelings. It is not always helpful to be a full-time cancer patient.
** The kind of work obviously affects this decision. If your job is physically demanding, requires a lot of travel, or exposes you to many potentially ill people (e.g. pre-school teachers), it will be harder to stay on the job.
** If working part time is possible, consider scheduling shorter days rather than fewer days.
** As treatment goes on, you may become more fatigued or have more trouble with concentration and “chemobrain.” It is sometimes necessary to revisit your work decisions and make changes as needed.

People Problems

** You will have to decide how public you want to be about the cancer. It is difficult to disguise a bald head and frequent absences, so honesty is usually the best and easiest policy.
** Consider asking your manager or a few colleagues to spread the word for you. If you are returning to work after a period away, think about a short lunch or coffee visit the previous week. Be clear about your wishes: Do you want people to ask you about your illness or do you want to be the one to bring it up? Do you want to try to keep cancer conversations out of your workplace, or are you supported and comforted by those discussions?
** Talk with a few close co-workers about any limits you anticipate. They will be more understanding if you apologize in advance for doing a bit less and reassure them that, as soon as possible, you will resume your usual pace.

Remember that work is surely important, but that your health is most important. Make your decisions accordingly.


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