Unemployed Years After Completing Breast Cancer Treatment

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A few weeks ago, I read an article published in the journal Cancer sharing that 30% of women who are breast cancer survivors are unemployed years after completing active treatment.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, surveyed women newly diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in Detroit and Los Angeles that were employed at the time of their diagnosis.They followed them up to nine months later and several years after that.

Study findings identified the primary reason for job loss as women having to take extended periods of time away from their jobs during treatment because they were not feeling well enough to work, or at high risk of infection while taking chemotherapy.

The study raises a number of questions that start with what can be done to reduce the incidence of unemployment, to what organizations can do to help women find employment once they have lost their jobs.

If you are self-supporting, or a single mom, or bring in a much-needed second family income, you worry whether you will be able to work through treatment. It is realistic to be concerned; cancer treatment is debilitating.

When diagnosed with my first breast cancer, 16 years ago, I was a director and instructor in a business school for women. I began my day at 8:30 AM, teaching 3 classes back to back. I was concerned that weeks off to take treatment might cost me my job.

I used a week of vacation days to recuperate from my lumpectomy surgery. Fortunately, I could work through six and a half weeks of Monday through Friday radiation treatments. My radiation center scheduled me for a daily 7 AM slot. I had just enough time to grab something to eat after treatment and get to work for my first class of the day, after which I had an hour break, and then began my afternoon schedule of administrative work.

For the first 15 days, I had no side effects, then the cumulative effects of radiation treatment hit and putting in an 8+ hour of work after treatment became a much greater challenge. Finally, treatment was over and I thought my work worries were a thing of the past. I thought wrong.

My biggest work-related  problem came a year later when the business school closed with only a month’s notice. All I could think about was, "Do I need to tell my new employer about my breast cancer, and will I qualify for insurance and other benefits?"

Since I had not had any gap in my employment history, I chose not to tell my new employer about my cancer. Health insurance was another matter.The health insurance company had to be told. As a result, my coverage during the first year of enrollment in the company plan did not include any doctor visits, screenings, follow-up procedures or surgeries related to my breast cancer. I lived in fear of a recurrence that would not only threaten my life but wipe me out financially.

Today, insurance companies cannot exclude a woman from coverage because of prior breast cancer treatment. However, losing a job while in treatment is still a frightening thought. How do you pay for care without insurance? How do you pay for insurance without a job?

For many women, who take several months of chemotherapy, working through treatment is not an option. Chemo reduces the immune system’s ability to fight off infection; being in crowds, and  around people who may be contagious is a major health risk.

When treatment is over, and women who become unemployed during treatment begin looking for work, they may find that long-term side-effects such as cognitive problems, and neuropathy may impact upon their ability to find new positions.

If you need guidance with employment issues because of a breast cancer diagnosis, reach out to organizations that provide this kind of education and support. One such organization that has a track record of success is Cancer and Careers, www.cancerandcareers.org a not for profit organization providing practical information about:

  • Planning for treatment and how it will impact on your being able to work.
  • Exploring ways you can fulfill your job requirements, if you can, while in treatment: working from home, shorter day schedule, and part time
  • Telling your employer about your diagnosis and what you can expect from your employer.
  • Telling co-workers
  • Your legal rights

If diagnosed with breast cancer, you need to become proactive before you start treatment by planning if and how you can continue to be employed. Find out about taking a leave of absence. Ask if you can work from home. If you have enough sick days accrued, can you use them to cover your time in treatment?

Get the advice you need to protect your employment status and your income.

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