How Breast Cancer Affected My Work
The fear, stress, and frustration that accompany a cancer diagnosis while still working and nowhere near retirement are often misunderstood by many. When I was diagnosed with stage IIA invasive lobular breast cancer in 2015, my initial thoughts were about affording treatments and surgery, as well as finding the strength to continue working during treatments. The weight of the world seemed to rest on my shoulders.
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During my active treatment, my health insurance through my job was not the best. I worked in radio sales for a major media company at the time. Due to a technicality and the timing of my diagnosis, I wasn't eligible for paid disability. Instead of focusing on surviving the harsh cancer treatments, I was forced to continue working and set aside my pride. I started a GoFundMe to cover my medical expenses and bills. While upper management was supportive, some of my coworkers were not. One insensitive comment from a coworker was especially hurtful and made me feel like my struggle with cancer was being trivialized.
Even after reaching the survivorship stage, I found it challenging to keep up with the fast pace of working full-time. Being single, I didn't have a spouse or partner to help me. The exhaustion from the radio industry took its toll on me. Additionally, I had to undergo another major surgery to address complications from my initial cancer treatment. This surgery, coupled with the lingering effects of chemotherapy, had a negative impact on my work performance. Instead of being supported, my bosses told me to separate my health issues from my work. This was another blow to my confidence and left me feeling unsupported.
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Many employers fail to understand the physical and mental toll that cancer takes on an individual. I also became acutely aware of how dependent I am on employer-provided health insurance. Although I eventually resigned from that position, it was a setback professionally because I realized that my health and career could no longer be separated. Cancer not only affects the body but can also have a detrimental effect on one's career. As a result, I made the decision not to disclose my cancer survivorship to future employers until after a probationary period.
Despite the advice from my medical care team, I continued working full-time throughout my cancer journey. Taking only a six-week break after surgery, my body was begging for rest, but I needed to keep a roof over my head. I resented having to use my paid time off for medical appointments and unexpected surgeries. In April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was laid off and lost my employer-provided health insurance. The stress and anger I felt about the timing, as well as the lack of support from my former employer, were overwhelming. It was a difficult time for professionals and hourly workers alike, as many industries were affected by the pandemic.
Having health insurance taken away, even without a pandemic, creates panic for those who rely on it for chronic health conditions like cancer. I wish I had known about resources like Cancer and Careers at the beginning of my cancer journey. They provide valuable support and information on managing a cancer diagnosis while working, including how to communicate with your manager, request accommodations, and receive legal advice.
Despite my professional accomplishments within the cancer space, as a 5-year breast cancer warrior, the fear and anxiety of living without health insurance and a steady income persist. The medical bills continue to pile up due to chronic health issues stemming from my cancer diagnosis and unexpected long-term side effects.
In conclusion, the journey of balancing work and a cancer diagnosis is often misunderstood, and the support and resources available can make a significant difference in a person's ability to navigate this challenging experience.