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When I was fired during breast cancer treatment, I fought back

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My mother was one of the first in her family to enroll in college. She had few choices of majors then, and she graduated with a degree in education. Both my mother and my father hoped that I would have more opportunities as an educated woman in the male-dominated field of business. Right after my college graduation in the early 2000s, I entered the business world. Just like any new graduate, I wanted to work hard, get promoted, and scale the ranks. For 20 years I dedicated my life to this pursuit. If an employer didn’t believe I had enough experience or “maturity” for a promotion - though the role had been occupied by a man of similar age to me - I would leave that company for the position I wanted elsewhere. I travelled for work almost weekly and solely concentrated on work projects, presentations, and the ever-competitive rat race of big corporation sales.

In my early 30s, I married and began a family. By 34, I was being overlooked for awards, promotions, and pay raises. I was burning out. Yet I trekked on, because I was conditioned to participate in every sales call, meeting, appointment, and conference call. I did not want to risk being berated, demoted, or fired. My family needed my salary and benefits.

After months of ignoring a painful, growing lump, I finally went to my gynecologist in February of 2013. That same day, I was given an appointment for my first mammogram ever. I was 38 years old. After the mammogram, I sat on the table still dressed from the exam, waiting. I hadn’t been given any information about the results. The health care provider just came in and told me to make an appointment with a surgeon. I had a biopsy within three days and was finally diagnosed by my oncologist with stage IV HER2+ breast cancer. I would need 15 rounds of chemotherapy, and surgery, radiation, as well as cyber knife radiation. I was told that I would be on intravenous medication for life.

I was devastated by my diagnosis. However, I was grateful for all I had secured for myself and my family: I had good medical insurance and a good salary to keep my family afloat. My employer was supportive. He told me to do what I had to do and that I could work while undergoing treatment. I started chemotherapy right away and knew I would have a break before surgery was scheduled for mid-July.

During my chemotherapy, I worked every day remotely and even travelled with my husband with me to important work appointments. My employer never gave me information on any disability services that were available, and I did not know to ask. In June 2013, I had competed all 15 of my chemo treatments, and we decided to go to the beach for a week to recuperate.  While on vacation my phone rang. My company’s human resources department said I was needed on an urgent call. I figured either the company was restructuring, or my boss was moving on. To my surprise, the human resource representative told me that she was sorry, but they were eliminating my position. I would receive only 2 weeks of severance pay and 2 weeks of continued insurance coverage. What? I was the sole insurance provider for my entire family in addition to being in active cancer treatment myself. How could such an action be legal? Forget the massive financial loss — how would I survive?  I was bald, sick, and unemployed. Who would even hire me?

Through my tears, I began to wonder how this can happen to people when they are sick, when they need their salaries and, above all, insurance. The United States does not make it easy for the uninsured to obtain coverage for life saving medications, treatments, and surgery. The costs are staggeringly high for all the procedures, co pays, and medications needed for cancer survivorship. I had no idea what to do or where to go.

My husband, who also works in business, was given the name of a reputable law firm to call and see if they could do anything for me. Luckily, they took on my case to sue my employer, a large and notable company, for my health insurance and severance since I was considered disabled. My lawyers found a loophole that allowed me to go on disability in my state. I could then keep my health insurance since a private or public company cannot legally eliminate your coverage once you are on disability. Without these lawyers, I do not know if I would have survived.

Fast forward five years later, and I am still here and still in treatment. However, I am still on disability with insurance thru social security. This is a far cry from where I was years ago. During this continuing journey, I have been contacted by numerous women who have had the same experience: they’ve been fired and lost their insurance coverage while they were in cancer treatment. How are these companies getting away with dismissing people’s lives? I believe these companies regard women as easy targets to dismiss because of the very stereotypes that have persisted for decades. Yes, we have come a long way from what my mother was told she could and couldn’t do for her career, but, whether it’s maternity leave, health care, equal pay and benefits, to laws allowing anyone who is sick to keep the benefits that they not only pay for but need to survive, there is still much work needed to protect the rights of women in the workplace.

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