A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer doesn’t mean you have to quit working. But you might find it easier to manage everything that comes with your condition when you’re not also concerned with work.
There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s 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 with advanced breast cancer still work and maintain their 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 the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Working may help you feel grounded and productive. It may be a good distraction and give you a sense of power when other parts of your life feel beyond your control. But if your job feels like too much to manage on top of your treatments and symptoms, you may 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 be helpful to tell your boss. If your manager knows what’s going on, they may be able help by extending deadlines, changing meeting times, or letting you work from home. You can come up with a plan together.
If you need work accommodations like regular breaks or a flexible schedule, you’ll have to share some information with your human resources department. Your human resources department and supervisor are legally required to keep your medical information private. But they may have to tell their managers.
There may be benefits to sharing with your colleagues. They could be a source of emotional support and help you manage your work better.
Marlena Murphy, 45, who has metastatic breast cancer and is an 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.
“The main thing for me was to communicate with people I work directly with, regarding treatment and medical appointment dates,” Murphy says.
Sharing with co-workers can have drawbacks. They may pepper you with questions about your health and treatment. You may get unwanted medical advice or opinions. And they’re not required to keep whatever you share to themselves.
How to Find Balance
How you feel and how you manage at work may change on a day-to-day basis.
On some days you may feel energetic, like you can handle anything. On other days, you may feel tired or struggle with symptoms like fatigue, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and muscle or bone pain. Try to let your body be your guide.
When you feel tired, take a break. If your job is physically demanding or you’re on your feet a lot, you may need regular rest breaks. Modifications like moving your desk closer to a restroom or working from home can help you find balance.
Getting Help at Work
There’s a lot you can do to make it easier to work 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 may help to shift your working hours to times in the day when you have more energy and will be more productive.
Consider adjustments like:
- Compressed work weeks
- Flexible hours
- Regular breaks throughout the day
- Remote work
- Shorter schedule
If you need extended time off, you may want to use sick leave.
If you’re going back to work after being out for a while, ask your boss if you can ease back into work with shorter or fewer days. Ask your co-workers to bring you up to speed on anything you missed, like new systems or procedures that started when you were out.
Know Your Rights
You may be entitled to several types of support while managing advanced breast cancer. Here are a few to look into:
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This requires your employer to make adjustments like shorter work hours, a modified work schedule, or reassignment to an open position. It also protects you from discrimination, so you get the same consideration you’d have without cancer.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This requires your employer to give you up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period. You can also use it if you’re a caregiver for your spouse, child, or a parent with a serious health condition.
Employee Assistance Programs. These programs offer help with personal issues that may affect your ability to do your job. For example, they may help you with financial and emotional concerns.
Disability policies. If advanced breast cancer prevents you from being able to work, you may qualify for short-term or long-term disability insurance. These policies may give you 40%-70% of your base salary. Short-term disability may be about 3-6 months. Long-term disability starts after short-term disability ends.
Talk to your human resources representative about what you qualify for and how to start the process.