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When healing is job one

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Make a plan, know your rights to get through cancer treatment without losing your job

workingwithcancer.JPGIn the rush of emotions following a cancer diagnosis, a nagging worry may surface: How will I manage to do my job -- keep my job -- while in treatment?

It's only natural. You're overwhelmed with choices and decisions, and fulfilling your job responsibilities during this time may seem too much to handle.

But the decisions you make in the first days and weeks after diagnosis are important, so let's consider your options.

What are the first steps for those who must work during treatment?

Depending on how long it takes to get a treatment plan in place, you have a bit of time to decide what and how much to tell your employer about your health.

'How much do I tell?'

When a recurrence of ovarian cancer necessitated immediate surgery followed by months of chemotherapy, Debbie Netterville, a bus monitor in a school district in a Houston suburb, decided to level with her boss. 

"At first your thought is, 'How much do I tell?' But I was as honest as I could be," she says. "It was less stressful."

Other questions to consider are how much time you'll need for appointments and treatment, and whether certain changes to your workplace environment or routines -- called reasonable accommodations -- would make it possible to do your job during and after treatment.

And, though this might seem obvious, don't be afraid to ask your oncologist and medical team to help, says Fredrick Hagemeister, M.D., a professor in MD Anderson's Department of Lymphoma and Myeloma.

"Talk to us," he says. "We can help you anticipate and manage side effects, choose treatments that are more conducive to working, and be flexible with scheduling appointments."

There are legal protections for those with cancer, and those who fear they'll lose their insurance coverage if they have to quit working due to cancer or cancer treatment have options, too.

For many, not working or taking a leave of absence isn't feasible because their insurance coverage is tied to their employment. For others, their intense treatment makes working out of the question.

Help is out there
The nonprofit Cancer and Careers program is an information clearinghouse that helps cancer patients navigate the workplace from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.

Another resource is the Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network, a leading source of free, expert, and confidential guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment issues.

One perhaps surprising perk of continuing to work is the comfort and reassurance of being in a familiar environment with comrades, contributing to a goal. The term for this is social support, and it's important for healing and health.

Netterville says working made her feel more productive, and being around the children on the bus every day was amusing and distracting. 

"And it kept me from researching about my cancer too much on the Internet," she adds with a laugh.

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