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7 Tips for Balancing Work and Cancer Treatment
1. Create an action plan.
Having a plan can keep you from feeling overwhelmed and help restore your sense of control over what’s happening to you. But remember to keep it flexible, because things will change.
Start by making a list of everything you need to do, then break each task into small steps to make it less daunting. Prioritize your list so you’re doing the most important tasks first.
2. Gather information.
Before you take any action at work, talk to your healthcare team about what your job requires both physically and mentally so you can discuss how treatment might impact your work abilities. Ask about common side effects of your treatment so you can assess how they might affect your job performance.
Some of the questions you might ask include:
- What options are there to manage side effects like nausea or vomiting, which can make it difficult to work?
- Can you take your medicines or go for treatments in the morning or evening, so the side effects won't interfere with the bulk of your workday?
- Will your side effects become more or less intense over time, which could affect your ability to work early — or late — in your treatment?
The answers to these questions and others like them will help you determine your best path for managing work during treatment.
3. Learn about the laws that can protect you in the workplace.
Federal laws such the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) may be applicable to your situation and can create a framework of support.
Keep in mind that state laws may also come into play. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains a list of all state labor offices, which oversee state employment laws.
Triage Cancer, a nonprofit organization focused on cancer survivorship, also has a state-by-state list of resources for help with employment issues.
4. Review your company’s relevant policies and procedures.
Locating and reviewing your employee manual, your original offer letter, and any other documents related to your employment and benefits is critical. These documents may answer such questions as how to request medical leave.
Knowing how your company has handled cancer or chronic illness in the past may be helpful. You may be able to find this out by talking with colleagues or even by Googling your company. You could also talk to a Human Resources representative, but if you have chosen not to disclose your diagnosis at work, this conversation could be tricky.
If your company has put them in place, flexible work policies, paid time off, and “leave banks” — in which employees contribute unused annual leave for use by other employees — can be useful resources to employees dealing with cancer.
5. Think about what you share online.
You may think that you are safe posting on your social networks about your cancer history, but with privacy settings changing every day, you may not be as protected as you think. Whatever you do and say online becomes part of your online footprint, so be aware that employers may be able to access your posts — now, or at a later date. Consider the possible short-term and long-term effects of going public with personal health information.
Be sure to tell your friends and family what your preferences are for discussing your cancer and its treatment online.
6. Be prepared to “swivel” conversations back to work-related topics.
It’s your decision whether and how much you want to discuss your cancer at work. But even if you’re generally comfortable talking about it, it’s worth planning how you’ll change the topic when you don’t feel like talking about it.
For example, if a co-worker makes a cancer-related comment, such as, “My aunt had cancer, too,” you might respond, “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope she’s okay. While I have you, is now a good time to go over the notes for our upcoming meeting?”
Not only do responses like these allow you to change the subject, but they also help to remind people that you are a contributing member of the team and that work is a priority.
7. If you took time off for treatment, ease back into the routine when you return to work.
As you prepare to return to work, evaluate your readiness to do so. Are you ready to come back full-time or part-time? If part-time sounds more feasible, consider what accommodations you will need. Do mornings work better, or afternoons? Take into account any medications you are on and their possible side effects. Will they impair your ability to drive to work, for instance, or to stay alert during long meetings?
Make your physical and mental health a priority as you decide what you’re capable of doing.
Rebecca V. Nellisis chief mission officer of Cancer and Careers, a nonprofit organization focused on empowering people with cancer to thrive in the workplace. She speaks regularly about the intersection of life, work, and cancer.
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
Photo of Rebecca Nellis provided by Cancer and Careers.
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