Cancer in the workplace

Most cancer patients worry about the bigger things. Like contemplating death, searching for the true meaning of life, finding and doing what makes them truly happy. That is the natural reaction when anyone’s faced with something as daunting as cancer. But I, for some reason, couldn’t and still can’t seem to see the bigger picture (perhaps because I generally don’t think that death is imminent for me?)

Anyway, aside from the chemo side effects, my number one concern from the time of diagnosis has been the impact cancer will have on my career. I think I mentioned in my earlier post that at my initial diagnosis, my first question to the oncologist was, “so can I get on the flight in 5 days and go back to work? because I only have so many vacation days.”

I was especially worried about my career because 1) I am an anxious person when it comes to work (damn you, first born traits!); 2) I work in a highly competitive legal field where any setback could be detrimental to my career and; 3) at the time of diagnosis I only had 1 year of experience under my belt.

After a prolonged forced time off from work, when I was finally able to return to work and start fresh at a new firm, I wasn’t going to risk the new opportunity and a chance to jump start my career by telling the new firm about my cancer. Even though I went to the interview in between the 5th and 6th round of taxol/carboplatin, and started working 1 week after the 6th round of said chemo, thankfully nobody noticed that something was off with me (or at least nobody said anything).

But once I found out last week that I will need further treatments, it became inevitable that I disclose my situation so that when I have to take every other friday off for infusion, it wouldn’t be a surprise to the firm. Also, my hands were forced a little because as of today, the partner at my firm is in Barcelona on a 6 month sabbatical and I won’t have a chance to talk to him about this in person.

Yeah, I know that it’s technically illegal to fire someone for their medical conditions. But the firm can make up any excuses to let me go (“oh she had one too many typos in her legal memo” or “we decided that the firm doesn’t have enough to sustain a full time work load for her” blah blah) and I wouldn’t have the time/desire/stamina to fight them in court. As worried as I was, I felt angry that I would have to feel this way. Battling cancer is already awful, but now I have to feel like I’m a liability in professional settings?!?! Why should I be punished for something like having cancer? It’s been shown that job applicants who are cancer SURVIVORS are less likely to receive callbacks from employers compared to those who didn’t disclose their health history.

I personally experienced this before. I went in for an interview a few months ago and I thought I had nailed it. I was connecting with the interviewers and my answered were on point. At some point, I mentioned my history of cancer to demonstrate my ability to deal with crisis and stressful situations. The interviewers looked shocked at first but soon told me how impressed they are with my story and my bravery. Two, three weeks went by and they couldn’t even be bothered to send me a canned letter informing that I didn’t get the job (after I tried to follow up with them a several times!). It’s very possible that there was a more qualified applicant but I couldn’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different had I not told them about cancer.

Going back to my current situation at the new firm, even though I was worried and nervous, upon encouragement from my friend NJ, I finally told the partner and a senior attorney that I have cancer and I am anticipating further treatments in the coming months. Fortunately, they were both very supportive of me and I am confident that I will be able to receive treatments and do the work I love at the same time, as long as my body permits.

My hope is that I can encourages other young cancer patients that it is possible to maintain a career and thrive. More importantly, I really hope that employers be encouraged to hire and be supportive of employees with cancer.






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