Be the Boss Over Cancer

Hello Career Coach - I have worked for a big global high tech company for nearly 18 years. I am employed at will. I have a desk job and I work from home in Seattle. I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer (Stage IV) in October 2005. I was hospitalized for treatment and went on Short Term Disability for roughly 3 months. I returned to work in February 2006. I have continued to work full time since with no extended absences or sick days due to my cancer. In December 2010 I started my first chemotherapy regime. My doctor said that I should be able to continue working full time while getting treatment. I disclosed the treatment plan and travel restrictions to my manager. The chemo is scheduled to be one appointment a week (about 2½ hours) continuing for 6 months. My doctor advised me not to travel given my diminished immune system. Back in December, my manager and I agreed that I would let her know if I felt I was unable to keep up with my job duties. To date, I have NOT expressed any concerns about my job duties to my manager. Last week I had a few complications with my treatment. I notified my manager and I took 1 sick day. Yesterday, my manager called me and said I should really consider going on Short Term Disability. She gave me two reasons. Reason #1: My upcoming work project will be very demanding and require additional hours of work each week. Plus, travel to LA for planning meetings will be expected since most of the project team is based in LA. She is concerned about my ability to successfully take on this demanding project while I am still undergoing chemo, especially if complications come up again. Reason #2: Our entire department is overloaded with work. And my manager wants to contract additional people. But the only way she can gain authorization and funds is for a “headcount” to open up. If I go on Short Term Disability, she will gain a temporary headcount to cover my workload. So she needs me to go on Short Term Disability to help her get another resource. What are my rights in this situation? Am I obligated to go on Short Term Disability because my manager doubts my ability to take on a demanding project? Can I request a different project that might be less demanding? Is my employer obligated to accommodate my request for a less demanding project? Does any of this constitute discrimination based on my disability? I appreciate any help and guidance you can provide. Thanks very much, -Worried Employee


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  • Alice McKenney

    Alice McKenney on Feb 22, 2011

    Cancer and Careers Staff Comment:

    Hi Diane,

    Thanks so much for reaching out to us. You have been fighting this battle courageously and have made all the right steps so far. I am forwarding your request along to one of our career coaches to help you figure out how to handle this in the short-term day to day. In the meantime however I recommend that you contact the Cancer Legal Resource Center with your questions regarding your rights, needs for accommodation, discrimination, etc. We work a lot with them and they are a great resource (especially their hotline).


    Toll Free: (866) THE-CLRC or (866) 843-2572

    Phone: (213) 736-1455


    I hope this helps, and do update us on whatever happens next in your journey!



  • Rosalind Joffe

    Rosalind Joffe on Feb 25, 2011

    Career Coach Comment:

    Dear Worried Employee, It sounds like you've read the "tea leaves" correctly concerning "headcount". It also sounds like you're in a demanding situation. You're caught between competing needs: your own to keep working at the level to which you've risen; your own to take care of your health and listen to your doctor's advice; and your company's to make sure the work gets done.

    It's a tough position to be in and it's not unusual in the current demanding workforce. I empathize wholeheartedy. I imagine that you might feel you've worked so hard for so long and there shoud be some more loyalty or flexbililty owed to you. I have a hunch that the key might lie in clarifying what is really being said and looking for points that will satisfy everyone's needs as best as possible. (Yes, I was a mediator in another life!) With that in mind, here are some some questions you might consider.

    Do you believe you can do the job and the current demands while taking this treatment?

    Is this a challenge you want to take on? If yes, then I'm not sure but I don't think your supervisor can force you to take a leave. If you believe that you can do the job and it's worth the risk, then it seems to me that's your choice to make.

    On the other hand, are you prepared for what might happen if you can't fulfill the responsibilities?

    You might ask yourself what you have to lose if you ask for a different role or a different department for this period of time. If you don't want to jeopardize the good will you've built over the past 18 years, consider what you can do to meet everyone's needs - yours and theirs. Is there a middle ground? You mention a transfer to a different role or department for this period?

    As you think about these issues, you might want to consider whether you want to preserve your relationships and status in this company through this experience. If so, words like obligations and rights can be harmful to the process.

    I hope that this helps you and you get what you want and need.

    Warmly, Rosalind Joffe

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