Living with Cancer: 5 Tips for Surviving — and Thriving — at Work

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Lissa Kline
Lissa Kline46
VP of Member and Provider Services at Progyny.

There are few things as scary in life as a cancer diagnosis. According to the American Cancer Society, 1.6 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2017 alone, with Breast Cancer being the most common type. There are so many details and emotions to manage when you first receive a diagnosis, including the psychological impact it can have on you. Depression and anxiety are known to be prevalent in those living with a cancer diagnosis. In fact, one study put the incidence at nearly 50% in the first year of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Fortunately, though, with advances in treatments and early detection for most, survival rates are climbing. The vast majority of those diagnosed with cancer will survive the disease and go on to live full lives. And yet, in the early stages, for the person diagnosed as well as their loved ones, it will be disruptive and overwhelming. How do you navigate the rest of your life when faced with such a devastating health event? 

For many, another question that might arise is, “Can I keep working?” This question is one that Cancer and Careers tries to help patients and survivors answer every day. Cancer and Careers is a national nonprofit that empowers and educates people with cancer to thrive in their workplace by providing expert advice, interactive tools and educational events. They address concerns about working through treatment or returning to work after treatment. I connected with Nicole Franklin, MPH who is Manager of Programs at Cancer and Careers, to better understand how folks continue to work while dealing with a diagnosis and treatment. 

"First, it is helpful to understand that people want to work for a variety of reasons, so understanding the why is critical to understanding the how," she said. "Work can be essential for maintaining an income and insurance coverage, but it can also provide a sense of normalcy and routine.”

A 2017 Cancer and Careers/Harris Poll survey, revealed that 65% of surveyed survivors felt work helped them cope. Additionally, Cancer and Careers offers several tips they have found to be very helpful:

1. Create an action plan.

By making a list of everything that needs to get done. Then avoiding multi-tasking is key!  Nicole said, “Data shows that only 2% of people multi-task effectively and side effects from treatment can make that even more challenging. Even though we live in a world that seems to constantly demand we do more than one thing at a time, the key to staying focused and getting things done is to write a to do list, prioritize it and then accomplish tasks one by one.”

It makes sense that prioritizing your list of to do’s, both personal and professional, will not only give you a sense of control, but also help keep everything organized

2. Manage your side effects at work.

It's important to note that life-saving treatment may also cause side effects, which can interfere with your daily activities including those at work.  Managing your side effects at work is important as you go through treatment and recovery.  According to Cancer and Careers, it’s important to ask your healthcare team about the potential side effects of your treatment as well as recommendations for managing them so you can approach work as strategically as possible.  

3. Know your rights and protections at work.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires certain employers (those with 15 or more employees and all state/local governments) to make ‘reasonable accommodations’ to allow eligible employees to continue to perform the essential functions of their job.  However, Cancer and Careers said, “Even if your employer doesn’t have to provide you with an accommodation, it doesn’t mean they won’t. Typically, companies want to retain their good employees, so it never hurts to ask for what you need to keep working. Before approaching your employer, consult with a legal service organization to understand your options so you can make an informed request. Finally, you should also check out your state fair employment law as it may provide additional protections beyond what the ADA offers.”

4. Consider disclosure of your diagnoses.

Asking for help brings up another important topic to discuss: disclosure. Should you tell your supervisors, benefits team, and colleagues about your diagnosis? Cancer and Careers reminds us it is a very personal decision and requires weighing several factors, but ultimately you should trust your instincts.

Nicole mentioned, “There are lots of people who choose not to disclose at any point. It is important to know that generally, you are not obligated to share any information about your health with your employer. Though there are some exceptions, for instance, if you want to access a reasonable accommodation, you may need to disclose some information about a medical condition to show you are entitled to it. If you do decide to tell, it is likely you will share with those who will be instrumental in figuring out a workable solution for you (possibly your supervisor and/or HR).” 

5. Learn to 'Swivel.'

People may choose not to disclose for a variety of reasons including being viewed as the “The Person with Cancer” in the office.  If you find that your co-workers are dwelling on your diagnosis instead of work-related topics, Cancer and Careers offers a great tip to help move the conversation away from your diagnosis.  They call it “the swivel.”

Here’s how Nicole explained it to me, “you can take a question like ‘How are you feeling today?’ and swivel away from the cancer topic and back to work. For instance, you can respond ‘I’m good, thanks. While I have you, do you have time this week to go over the new expense reports?’  The key is to acknowledge your colleague’s comment and then swivel the conversation to a place where you feel comfortable and empowered.” 

Learning how to set boundaries in your personal and professional life is critical and understanding how and when to ask for help is key to getting what you need when you need it.  Nicole said, “Knowing your limitations so you don’t feel overwhelmed is important as you balance work, treatment and recovery.” Cancer and Careers has many resources to help you navigate your diagnosis and your job.  I recommend you reach out if you or someone you know has been diagnosed and is looking for information on how to balance work and cancer.