It's a devastating catch-22: You have cancer, feel terrible, and know you should be focusing on your well-being—but if you don't keep working, you won't have the insurance or income to pay your medical bills. A new study has found a silver lining: Nearly 80 percent of patients and survivors believe that sticking to a professional routine helped their recovery.
"Maintaining some semblance of your old life can create a clearer head and a calmer mind," says Pallav Mehta, M.D., director of integrative oncology at the Cooper MD Anderson Cancer Center and coauthor of After Cancer Care. We spoke to leading experts for guidance on balancing life and livelihood. [CLICK TO ENLARGE]
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
A surprising number of employees—and even employers—don't know the law. Here, legal information to help you cope.
You told HR in confidence. Now everyone knows. Generally, HIPPA privacy rules apply only to health-care providers like your doc; they don't cover loose-lipped peers, says Joanna Morales, CEO of Triage Cancer, a nonprofit dedicated to survivorship issues. If the cat is out of the bag and a coworker offers unwanted advice or attention, steer the convo away from your illness. "If someone asks how you're feeling, say, 'Happy to be here. While I have you, can we talk about X work related issue?'" suggests Rebecca Nellis, chief mission officer for the nonprofit Cancer and Careers. If they push, tell them to butt out (nicely): "I'd prefer not to discuss that."
You've exhausted your PTO but need more time off for doctor's visits, chemo, or treatment recovery. Get to know two laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Per ADA, in most cases, companies that have 15-plus employees are required to make "reasonable accommodations" to help you do your work—which includes rejiggering your schedule or allowing time off for appointments. Depending on where you work, FMLA may protect your job and benefits for unpaid absences up to 12 weeks. You don't have to blow it all at once; you can take, say, a few days off to recover after each round of chemo. If you have exhausted your FMLA benefits, check into your employer's long-term disability coverage.
You're scared you'll be fired. It's illegal for most companies to terminate someone with an illness as long as the employee can still do their job. Yet one in four survivors say they've faced discriminatory behavior, like being passed over for a promotion. If you think you're among them, keep a diary of related incidents (for example, peers try to ease your load by taking stuff off your plate, but you're removed from the project completely). You may want to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If it decides you have a case, you'll need an employment attorney (lawhelp.org can assist in finding free or low-cost options). Before you make that call: Run the situation by a pal to make sure you're not reading into things. Mid-treatment and under stress, you may be more prone to perceiving affronts.
For more on how to handle cancer at work, pick up the October 2015 issue of Women's Health, on newsstands now.