Breast Cancer in the Workplace: Your Privacy, Your Appearance, Your Stress
What you tell coworkers is up to you, but expect some curiosity.(FOTOLIA)For some women, continuing at their jobs while on treatment is a choice that they're eager to make; they're ready to get out of the house and hope that work will help them feel like their old selves again—and take their minds off the charts and scans and meds. For most breast cancer patients, the paycheck makes working a necessity.
Either way, you may want to strategize a little bit about how you'll deal with workplace issues that may come up.
Your return to work may pique the curiosity of your coworkers (even if you don't look any different). Just be ready for some questions, remembering that how much you explain is up to you.
"I was surprised at how many people asked if I had reconstruction," says Michelle, 49, from Columbus, Ohio—a somewhat personal question, she thought. Michelle was diagnosed with DCIS in 2006, and—because an MRI showed disease in more than one spot in her right breast (with an inconclusive test on her left breast); she had family history on her father's side; and she had had a tumor removed from her left breast many years earlier—she opted to forgo lumpectomy and radiation and have a bilateral mastectomy instead. And no, she chose not to have reconstruction. "The assumption is you just do [get reconstruction]. I chose not to. People just say...'Oh.'"
Some women like to come clean at work so they can enjoy the feeling of support and the words of encouragement. Others like to keep the workplace a sanctuary from cancer, a place to think about other things. Either way, if you plan on working through your treatment, you might consider giving your boss a heads-up, in case you need to make a few extra visits to the doctor.
Next Page: Appearance [ pagebreak ]I Was Discriminated Against at WorkAt first, Nancy wasn't sure she had the energy to fight Read moreAppearance
If you stay on at work during breast cancer treatment, the nosiness (or genuine concern) of coworkers may be exacerbated if you look different than before. Whatever you do (or don't do) to appease this particular kind of stress, the solution may be different from one you'd choose outside the workplace.
For instance, many women who wouldn't be caught dead in a wig at home or out with friends opt to wear one at work, where for one reason or another, it feels like a scarf or baseball hat won't do.
"I felt more professional coming in with a wig than a scarf, especially if I was wearing a suit," says Connie Harrington, 40, of Aurora, Ill. Harrington, who is vice president of operations for a check guarantee company and was diagnosed with stage IIIA invasive lobular carcinoma in 2007, goes into an office three days a week and spends the other two days working from home.
"I'm the type of person who likes to blend in; I don't want people looking at me or feeling sorry for me," explains Harrington.
Pressure at work can add strain to an already overwhelming situation. If you need help fighting stress at work, consult with a social worker at your hospital or clinic. At the very least, a social worker can point you in the right direction. Depending on the institution, it may not cost you extra, notes Karen R. Monaghan, LICSW, a clinical oncology social worker at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
What if you want to take time off from your stressful job? Your social worker may be able to help determine what benefits—such as short- or long-term disability—you may be eligible for or point you toward local, state, and national agencies that can offer information and assistance.
Some hospitals and breast centers offer special programs, such as the CHAT (Connecting Hope, Assistance and Treatment) program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which gives low-income women anywhere in Massachusetts up to $1,200 a year to help pay for tamoxifen, prosthetics, bras, wigs, transportation, child care, and other needs.