Breast cancer in the workplace: An expert shares her tips
Dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis can impact many areas of your life, and the emotional and financial tolls can be challenging, if not overwhelming.
For those who continue working, there are various factors to consider when navigating treatment and employment. Should you temporarily or permanently leave your job? Can you afford to do so? Or maybe working provides an important sense of normalcy, socialization, and mental relief.
When Theresa “Terri” Marchlewski was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in 2020, she knew she wanted to keep working. “It gave me a great deal of satisfaction and a sense of control,” says Terri, a recently retired lawyer who handled cases involving workplace discrimination. “In fact, I had some of my most productive years at work while I was in treatment for MBC.”
Terri was recently accepted into LBBC’s Hear My Voice Metastatic Advocacy program. She shares her expertise, both professional and personal, on how to discuss your needs in the workplace.
If you plan to work
If you’ve decided to work during treatment, you can ask your employer to accommodate you—or make it easier to do your job. For example, you may need flexible hours so you can see your doctors or receive treatment; you may need help with the physical demands of your work.
Companies that employ more than 15 people are required to make reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities, which includes those undergoing cancer treatment, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many employers want to help but getting accommodations requires ongoing communication. If you’re ready to start the conversation, here are some things to consider as you prepare:
- Know your rights. Start by reading your company’s handbook and learn what policies are in place. Triage Cancer also offers a great resource for state laws and policies.
- Talk to your doctor or nurse. Have a frank discussion with your healthcare team about the requirements of your job—in terms of schedule and any physical demands—so you are prepared to inquire about reasonable accommodations you may need at work.
- Document your discussion. Before you go into a meeting with an employer, have an idea of what you want to say. Take notes during the meeting, too.
- You may want to remind your employer of your right to privacy. If you decide to share health information with your coworkers, it’s your choice to make about who you want to tell, and when and how you tell them. Some people choose to keep a cancer diagnosis to themselves; others receive invaluable comfort and support from their colleagues.
- Be flexible and think long term. Especially if you have MBC, what you need now may not work six months, a year, or two years from now.
- Seek trusted advisors. If you know people who work and are living with cancer, they can be a sounding board and provide advice at various stages.
Everyone who lives with breast cancer has unique circumstances and experiences, says Terri. It’s important to “be honest with yourself about what you need as a person and as a patient; try to be realistic about what you can do, what you can’t do, what you want to do, and what’s best for you.”
Read more about managing finances, work, and health insurance.