Be the Boss Over Cancer

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Once your cancer treatment is complete or nearing completion and you've been cleared to return to work, at least part-time, more challenges await. Find out what you need to know about how your cancer history may affect you on the job and how to take full advantage of the protections afforded you under the law.

Easing back into the routine

If you can set the tone as a relaxed, confident cancer survivor, chances are those around you may be less uptight, too. If you can see your return to work as a major step forward in your recovery, that will affect your attitude in the most positive way, too.

After your medical leave is over, gear up for the next challenge: making your re-entry to your job as comfortable as possible. For cancer survivors, returning to work often brings mixed emotions: relief, trepidation, hope -- and perhaps awkwardness. Even if you are sure you're ready to return, you may worry: Will you encounter skepticism or support? That depends partly on how you approach the situation, experts say. Here are some suggestions for smoothing the transition from cancer patient back to valued employee.

Follow Your Style

If you're naturally talkative and share information easily, you'll probably want to update co-workers and your boss on your recovery. If you're more private, just tell everyone you're doing fine and let it go at that. (You can expect your supervisor to honor your requests for confidentiality.) How much you divulge can also depend on the work environment and whether other employees have taken time off for cancer treatment and returned to work successfully.

Get up to Speed

It is important to feel confident again about your job abilities. How do you do so?

  • Test your psyche. Just as important as feeling capable of doing the job is feeling psychologically up to speed. If you're feeling below par, you might seek one-on-one counseling from a social worker or a therapist, or join a support group of other cancer patients returning to work.
  • Evaluate your readiness to work. 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 marathon meetings?
  • Attend workshops or seminars to refresh your skills.
  • Attend industry events to keep your knowledge up-to-date

Make a Plan

  • Once you've decided whether you are fit to return full-time or part-time, make a schedule, see if it fits your employer's need and then prepare to follow it.
  • Take a look at your workstation. Does it need to be redesigned or fitted with equipment such as back support or other devices to make you more comfortable?
  • Focus on the work itself, even if catching up means tending to tedious tasks such as returning a boatload of telephone calls or tackling a mountain of mail. "It's important to resume routine," says Susan Scherr, 58, a two-time cancer survivor. Doing so underscores the reality that you've transitioned from patient to employee.

Your cancer history, the law and your insurance

There are a number of laws which may aid in your transition back to work, and to keeping and getting the most out of your insurance. For example, After you return to work, you will probably need to take time off for follow-up visits and checkups, or maybe for remaining chemotherapy sessions. Be aware that you're entitled to the benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if you work for a company with 50 or more employers. Under that law, you can take the leave in small increments, even as little as one-hour blocks of time.

If you were employed and had health insurance before the diagnosis of cancer, took approved time off, and are back to work, there will be no effect on your group health insurance at all, experts say. If you are covered by a group plan, you can't be singled out for your cancer history. Your premiums can't go up higher than others' premiums, and you can't be dropped from the group plan due to the cancer. The federal law known as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) protects the rights of people in group health plans.

Even if you leave one group health insurance plan, you have protection in transitioning to another group plan. Another law called COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, passed in 1986) provides continuation of group health coverage that might otherwise be terminated. It offers the right to temporary continuation of health coverage under certain conditions.

One of the main provision of the recent health care reform implements new regulations which will prevent all health insurers from denying coverage to people for any reason, including health status, and from charging higher premiums based on health status and gender.

Are you being treated fairly?

Legally, your cancer history can't be used against you in the workplace. But it can be difficult to determine if your cancer history is being used unfairly, because discrimination can be subtle. Some hints: If someone clearly less qualified is promoted, you should suspect the cancer history. If you hear disparaging comments, you are being treated unfairly. One woman (who filed a lawsuit) told of the day the office staff had to exit the building during a blackout and her boss said others should just follow her, since her radiation therapy made her glow. If tasks you used to do competently are being given to someone else, that might be a clue your supervisor thinks you're not as capable. If your assignments or projects are not as challenging or time consuming as they were before your cancer treatment, that might be a clue. But the evidence is very "fact-specific" for each workplace situation.

Moving to another company

Perhaps you're unhappy enough to look for another job, you've decided to go after your "dream job" or you just have an opportunity for an interview with another company. Going on a job interview is always challenging, but if you have a cancer history it might be more so. If you decide to look around for a new job, experts recommend squashing that natural urge some cancer survivors have to talk about it, at least right away, with a potential new employer. Also, you should know that your potential new employer does not have the right to ask about your medical history. The employer only has a right to know if you are qualified to do the job.

Experts: Our panel of experts: Page Tolbert, a social worker at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Post-Treatment Resource Program, New York; Randye Retkin, an attorney and the director of LegalHealth, part of New York's Legal Assistance Group; Kimberly Calder, manager of Health Insurance Initiatives for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; Barbara Hoffman, an attorney and the founding chair of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship.