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The Work-Cancer Balance

Some patients want to work through illness and others need to, but juggling work responsibilities and treatment regimens can be a challenge. By Leigh Labrie


​Roughly 40 percent of the 14.5 million cancer survivors in the U.S. are of working age, and many want or need to keep their jobs during treatment.
While receiving chemotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, real estate agent Richard Power often worked on his laptop with his cellphone and tablet close at hand. After twice-a-month treatments with Avastin (bevacizumab), leucovorin, fluorouracil and Camptosar (irinotecan) at Dana-Farber, Power, 63, would leave for his Marshfield, Massachusetts, home with a portable pump that administered fluorouracil for two days. Despite feeling fatigued after each treatment, dealing with bowel issues such as constipation and diarrhea, and having an occasional chemotherapy-induced stutter, Power managed to balance his demanding job with his treatments.
Power has been employed steadily since his stage IV colon cancer diagnosis in 2010. Typically he wakes up at 5:30 a.m., and after a cup of coffee, he’s ready to sell real estate in Marshfield and Scituate, coastal towns about 30 miles southeast of Boston. Power says real estate work never stops: He’s busy seven days a week meeting with clients, posting listings and showing properties.

Unemployment and Survivorship
Unemployment after cancer can make for a difficult transition to survivorship.

Work It Out
The following resources can help you navigate the work world while dealing with cancer.
“It keeps your mind off things,” he says of his work. “It allows you to feel normal, and it allows you to feel like you have part of your life back.”
Roughly 40 percent of the 14.5 million cancer survivors in the U.S. are of working age. Many survivors need to keep their jobs through treatment and recovery because they can’t afford to take extended time off without pay or because their health insurance is provided through their employer. Power is one of many cancer survivors who choose to keep working during treatment. Going to work can help survivors maintain a sense of purpose, in addition to offering a support network and a welcome distraction from their serious illness. 
“It can be a way to stay connected to who you are as a human in terms of what you contribute to the world,” says Rebecca V. Nellis, chief mission officer of Cancer and Careers, a nonprofit organization in New York City that helps people with cancer succeed at work.
Even though improvements in cancer treatments and survival have made it possible for more patients to stay on the job, says Nellis, not every patient wants to. The decision is personal and influenced by the patient’s diagnosis and treatment and by the type of work he or she does. Before arriving at a decision, Nellis says, patients should talk to their cancer care team about a treatment timeline and possible side effects and describe to them what their job entails. Patients also should understand their state and federal employment rights and their company’s policies, and then decide how much of their diagnosis they want to share with their employer, or whether they want to share it at all.
Making Adjustments
As the sole provider for her 11-year-old son, Ashley Thompson didn’t question whether she would continue working after a March 2011 diagnosis of stage I kidney cancer. Her difficulties were compounded when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that led her body’s immune system to attack healthy cells.
Thompson, 36, who lives just outside San Antonio, Texas, was able to adjust her hours and work from home during her diagnosis and treatment. In May 2011, her urologist removed her diseased kidney, and during recovery, she answered work emails from her hospital bed. A month later, she went to the Mayo Clinic’s campus in Arizona for nearly two weeks to see specialists about treating her autoimmune disorder.


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