Unfortunately, it is not true that all employers are supportive when you are going through breast cancer. However, some employers are wonderful and I would imagine, most employers are somewhere in the middle of that bell curve.
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, there are so many decisions to make. Not just about survival, treatment options, who to tell and what to say, but also whether you should continue working and how you will finance yourself during cancer treatment.
With my first cancer diagnosis, I didn’t really think about it. I just wanted to take the minimum time off and I had a mortgage to pay, so hey, no real decisions there. As I progressed through chemo, I realised that I was crazy to be working as I felt very ill a lot of the time.
However, with my second diagnosis, I didn’t have a mortgage to pay and I learned my lessons from the first time. This allowed me to think through some different options for myself i.e. not working at all through my cancer treatment. I moved home to live with my parents and spent time focusing on my health.
We are all unique
These choices are all individual; some like to continue work as they love it or it gives them a structure or it’s a great distraction or they like their colleagues. Also, some cancers are milder with shorter treatments whereas other treatments can drag out for years.
However many people have to work because they need the money. Cancer can affect your finances a lot (with medications, travel, special food or supplements, leave without pay etc) and everyone is in a different boat financially. Some people have income protection, but most people I know didn’t have this insurance. Some employers offer long amounts of paid sick leave e.g. six or 12 months or longer. While other organisations consider two to eight weeks a lot of sick leave.
Support from Work
It is hard to know what to expect when it comes to paid sick leave, how supportive your manager should be and whether they offer any support at all. Some workplaces are just support supportive and some aren’t.
Some employers are considerate to your personal circumstances and really want to help you during treatment e.g. a car park while at work, reduced hours, hiring another person so that you can take time off and offering flexibility. Other employers offer no flexibility or even, heavens forbid, put pressure on their employee with breast cancer to work or resign or with increased work.
Fortunately and unfortunately, I have had a range of these experiences:
On the positives:
- An HR manager gave me a free car park for over six months so that I didn’t have to catch the bus with an almost zero immune system;
- Another staff member was recruited into the team as my back up, so that I could work when I could but not carry all the work;
- My job was held open for me during 18 months of treatment;
- Colleagues helped fundraise $55,000 towards nearly $70,000 of at the time non-publically funded Herceptin treatment (including three colleagues who did a fundraising haircut, dinner and movie – thanks Brent, Sokha and Judith!);
- Free counselling through the Employer Assistance Programme (EAP);
- Super supportive colleagues. I can never thank enough colleagues who sent cards, visited me and especially ones who consistently checked in with me. One colleague Tony used to email me at home and offer me weekends at his holiday home. People can be so kind; thank you guys!
On the negatives:
- One manager told me that I wasn’t being flexible when I wanted to take leave without pay for chemotherapy treatment;
- HR told me that they couldn’t confirm any part time work for me so I had to work full time or nothing;
- I was told that I would need to take my annual leave to have radiation therapy as the HR manager said it did not constitute a need for sick leave;
- I was given lectures that I was letting people down by changing my work hours when I was unwell;
- One HR manager told me that her expectation was that on the last day of six months of chemo, I should be 100% feeling good and able to return to full time work.
Tips and hints from me
Here are a few tips from me:
- Before diagnosis, get income protection insurance!
- After diagnosis
- Medical certificates. Always keep copies for all your correspondence with your employer.
- Work hours.This is hard but try and work out – do I want to work and if so, how many hours do I want to work? This is hard to predict as you may not know which treatments are coming ahead
- Finances. Again, work out how much money do I need and how much do I have to work if money is an issue? Sort out your income protection insurance if you have any. Talk to the Cancer Society and Work and Income NZ if you are struggling financially.
- Get agreements on paid sick leave in writing.
- Support. If these work negotiations or discussions are difficult, get support from a colleague, friend, partner, union delegate or health advocate.
- Ask for flexibility. Believe me, you will not know how you will feel after six months of chemo or radio. It is like trying to read a crystal ball.
- Under commit and over deliver – I would say that I would be able to work full time by x date and often, couldn’t as I had too much fatigue
- Employment lawyer. If your think the employment law has been breached, see an Employment lawyer ASAP. Don’t wait until six months down the track as it will be too late. If you are in the Wellington area, I can recommend Phil Mitchell.
- If your workplace is supportive and you enjoy your work, I’m sure it’ll be great for your healing and recovery.
And some philosophy from me:
- You are Number One. Don’t be nice or quiet or keep everyone happy at work to your own detriment. Don’t accept situations that aren’t good for you. You are number one!
- You are not letting people down by being away sick from work.
- It is not okay for your employer to put extra pressure or stress on you or ask you to work when you feel unwell.
- Many employers do not understand cancer, have not had it and require a bit of education. However, some of my friends have had managers or colleagues who’ve had cancer who have been super flexible and supportive.
- Work is only work. Health and your life are more important. You will always get another job
- If you love your job, obviously spend time there but if you don’t and can afford it, take some leave and have the most enjoyable time you can have while doing cancer treatment
- Having cancer is not a choice and to quite a degree, you won’t have control over your side effects to chemo and radiation. You can eat well and be positive but unfortunately, if you are throwing up, it’s hard to eat well and be positive.Everybody is so unique and will have unqiue side effects to the medications. Also don’t compare yourself to another person or colleague who worked all the way through chemo. You never know what motivation they had for doing that.
- Understanding others. I am sorry to say this but compassion fatigue does exist. After doing chemo, you are likely to feel so much worse in six months time than you did at diagnosis. However, others may feel that you are now completely well.
And for the employers:
My tip is simply to treat your colleague with the most kindness you can muster. This could be you or your child one day going through cancer treatment. Also to stick to the employment law as a minimum of support.
- I found an excellent website called Cancer and Careers. Amongst other things, it has tips on how to talk to your colleagues and manager about your diagnosis, how colleagues can talk to a colleague with cancer and tips for job interviews and career post cancer.
- The Cancer Society with lots of things including chats, counselling and advice.
- Please also talk to your GP, Oncolgoist and Breast Surgeon for support. They are also able to write letters to your employer if necessary.
- Employment lawyer Philip Mitchell.
Good luck! And thanks to the supportive managers and employers out there.
Does anyone have any more tips for negotiating with employers? Let us know.