A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer does not mean you have to stop working. But you might find it easier to deal with everything that comes with your condition when you’re not also preoccupied with work.
There is no right or wrong answer. It is a personal choice that depends on many factors. Here’s what to consider when making the decision and how to make it work if you decide to stay at your job.
To work or not to work
“Many people with advanced breast cancer are still working and maintaining family life with amazing ease, even with regular appointments and sometimes ongoing outpatient intravenous therapies,” says Rebecca Crane-Okada, PhD, Director of Cancer Navigation & Willow Sage Wellness Programs at Margie Petersen. Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Working can help you feel grounded and productive. It can be a good distraction and give you a sense of empowerment when other parts of your life feel out of your control. But if your job feels too much to handle on top of your treatments and symptoms, you can decide to take a break or not return to work.
To share or not to share
Who you tell and how much you share is up to you.
It may help to talk to your boss about it. If your manager knows what’s going on, they may be able to help you by extending deadlines, changing meeting times, or allowing you to work from home. You can come up with a plan together.
If you need work accommodations like regular breaks or a flexible schedule, you will need to share certain information with your human resources department. Your human resources department and your supervisor are legally required to keep your medical information confidential. But they may need to inform their superiors.
There may be benefits to share with your colleagues. They could be a source of emotional support and help you manage your work better.
Marlena Murphy, 45, a metastatic breast cancer survivor and advocate for TurningPoint Breast Cancer Rehabilitation in Atlanta, GA, decided to share her cancer diagnosis at work so she could balance her work with her treatments.
“For me, the main thing was to communicate with the people I worked with directly regarding treatment dates and medical appointments,” says Murphy.
Sharing with colleagues can have drawbacks. They may ask you questions about your health and treatment. You may get unwanted medical advice or opinions. And they don’t have to keep anything you share to themselves.
How to find balance
The way you feel and perform at work can change from day to day.
Some days you may feel energized, like you can handle anything. On other days, you may feel tired or struggle with symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and muscle or bone pain. Try to let your body guide you.
When you feel tired, take a break. If your job is physically demanding or you are on your feet a lot, you may need regular breaks. Changes like bringing your office closer to the restroom or working from home can help you find balance.
Get help at work
There is a lot you can do to make labor easier while managing advanced breast cancer.
For example, if you’re in the middle of treatment, ask your boss if you can set your own hours. It can help to shift your work hours to times of the day when you have more energy and will be more productive.
Consider adjustments such as:
- Compressed work weeks
- Flexible hours
- Regular breaks throughout the day
- Remote work
- Shorter schedule
If you need extended leave, you can use sick leave.
If you’re returning to work after being away for a while, ask your boss if you can return to work with shorter or fewer days. Ask your colleagues to update you on anything you missed, such as new systems or procedures that started while you were away.
Know your rights
You may be entitled to several types of support during the treatment of advanced breast cancer. Here are a few to consider:
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This forces your employer to make adjustments like shorter work hours, modified work schedule, or reassignment to a vacant position. It also protects you from discrimination, so you get the same consideration you would have without cancer.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This requires your employer to grant you up to 12 weeks of unpaid work leave over a 12 month period. You can also use it if you are a caregiver for your spouse, child, or relative with a serious medical condition.
Employee assistance programs. These programs provide help with personal issues that may affect your ability to do your job. For example, they can help you with financial and emotional issues.
Disability policies. If advanced breast cancer prevents you from working, you may be eligible for short-term or long-term disability insurance. These policies can give you 40% to 70% of your base salary. Short-term disability can be around 3-6 months. Long-term disability begins after the short-term disability ends.
Talk to your human resources representative about what you qualify for and how to start the process.