Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
I was just diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. i feel great, but have to start chemo next week. can I keep working? I am the breadwinner for the family and not working will just add to everyone's stress.
Rebecca Nellis, Director of Programs at Cancer and Careers (www.cancerandcareers.org), responds:
There is no one single answer to this question, it varies depending on the person, diagnosis, treatment plan, side effects, job type and work environment. I would recommend that first you speak to your healthcare team about your desire to work through treatment and find out from them what you can expect the experience to be like. Be sure to explain what your job entails and why it is important to you. Without that information, your doctors and nurses can't work with you to create the treatment protocol and schedule that allows you to work when you are feeling your best. You need to understand from them all the medications and their likely impact on you physically and mentally (e.g. does something usually make people drowsy or nauseous). After you have discussed your work priorities with your healthcare team, you are going to want to consider other places besides work where you can lighten your load if at all possible. Simple things like can someone else do the cooking and the laundry make a big difference. Basically any place where you can conserve energy and save it for treatment and work should be your goal.
If you are going to need a reasonable accommodation or some other protection under the law (like using Family and Medical Leave Act time) then you will need to have a conversation with your employer as well. We recommend before you do anything, you get a solid handle on what your rights are, what you need to know to make use of the law and what you should be asking about and for. The best organization to contact about legal and insurance issues is the Cancer Legal Resource Center. They provide free, over-the-phone counseling and can be reached at (866) 843-2572.
Many people find that work isn't just important for financial or health insurance reasons, it provides a sense of normalcy and sometimes even a break from the cancer universe. If you decide to share your diagnosis, supervisors and coworkers can also be great support systems during treatment and recovery. There are also many strategies you can employ to make working easier depending on your job.
Visit www.cancerandcareers.org for information on how and who to tell at work, tactics to make working through treatment easier, simple descriptions of relevant laws, interactive career coaching and personal stories on working through treatment.
This question and answer was part of the OncoLink Brown Bag Chat Series. View the entire transcript from the Lung Cancer Q&A Webchat.