Recent advances in treatment and side-effect management are allowing more and more people coping with cancer to continue working during and after treatment. The workplace can be a supportive environment for people facing a cancer diagnosis; it can contribute to a sense of normalcy and provide a feeling of community from colleagues, not to mention financial stability and health insurance benefits.
Many working-age adults who are cancer patients must shoulder the tremendous financial strain of their treatment; they have no choice but to continue working or go back to work when they end treatment, regardless of whether or not they feel ready. Patients should be engaged in an open dialogue about their employment status, the decision whether or not to disclose their diagnosis to their employers, and what rights they are entitled to.
For many adults who want to continue to work during and after treatment, the issue of disclosure looms large in their minds. Some may worry that they will be seen as a liability to their employer and perhaps be terminated from their position if they disclose their diagnosis. Others, even those who describe themselves as close to their supervisor and colleagues, may fear that they will encounter subtle discrimination.
As an oncology social worker at CancerCare, I encourage clients who decide to tell their employers about their cancer to learn as much as possible about their diagnosis and treatment schedule before discussing it. Presenting a plan of action to their supervisor will not only help patients feel more in control of their diagnosis, it may help ease the supervisor’s or coworkers’ concerns about how work will keep moving forward as the patient copes with his or her diagnosis.
Part of returning to work after an illness is immersing yourself back into the identity you had before treatment. As part of this, having (and wanting) people to see you as a competent, contributing employee and not just “the one with cancer” is important, but can also be something that can become burdensome. Remind patients not to overextend themselves or fixate on proving to people they can do the job in the same capacity. Instead, encourage them to take control of conversations that become about their cancer by acknowledging their colleague’s comment and then immediately focusing back to work-specific topics. This is called re-casting or resetting your professional image.
I also always remind clients who are seeking employment that a potential new employer does not have the right to ask about medical history. Interviews are about whether you are qualified for the job, and the understandable urge to share cancer history as it relates to their ability to overcome adversity should be avoided. Keep the conversation focused on skills related to the description of employment.