Working After a Recurrent or Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis

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The effect of a diagnosis of recurrent or metastatic breast cancer on your work life will be different for every person. You may have an understanding supervisor, a flexible schedule, and an encouraging team to support you. Or you may have questions about how best to manage treatment and work. Some women may wonder if they should be working at all. Others may feel the need to work because they’re concerned about paying for treatment.

"In working with people living with stage IV disease, there's a constant conversation and struggle about whether to work or not," says Rosalind Kleban, licensed clinical social worker who serves as administrative supervisor for psychosocial programs and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Lauder Breast Center in New York City. "Part of the discussion that leans toward working is that it very often acts as a distraction, a way to be involved in things and people outside of the illness. I think that both sides of the equation should be looked at very seriously because work has some value for all of us — including people with an illness."

Ultimately you have to do what is right for you, your lifestyle, and your family. There is no one best way to manage the emotional, physical, and legal aspects of balancing your job and your treatment. Below are some tips that have helped other people.

Working during treatment: Let your doctor know if you're working during treatment. You may be able to schedule treatments around your working hours. Breast cancer treatments can sometimes cause thinking and memory problems — called cognitive effects — which can have an effect on how well you do your job. If you're finding that it's hard to focus or you're forgetting important things, you may want to keep a work journal in which you:

  • keep a record of meetings and appointments on paper with the time and date, as well as what was discussed
  • write summaries of important conversations that include ideas you want to remember and decisions that were made
  • track deadlines and keep a timeline of goals as they're met
  • keep a running to-do list
  • write down your work schedule for each day of the upcoming week

Taking time off work: Some people decide that they need to concentrate fully on treatment and decide to take time off work. Short-term and long-term disability programs provide a percentage of your income in the event of an injury or illness that prevents you from working.

  • Short-term disability may be granted by the state or by employers for a set period of time, usually 3 to 6 months. Some short-term disability policies may require that you use up all your sick time and vacation days before you receive any disability benefits. Talk to your company's human resources representative so you know exactly what you will receive, when you'll receive it, and for how long.
  • Your employer isn't required by law to offer long-term disability insurance. Still, the insurance industry estimates that about half of medium- and large-sized businesses offer long-term benefits for at least 5 years. A typical long-term disability policy pays about 60% of your salary and starts when short-term benefits have been used up. The length of time you receive long-term benefits can range from 5 years to life. Long-term disability policies vary widely. Talk to your human resources representative at work and find out if you're covered, what is covered, and how long you can receive payments. It's also important to know if your employer's plan considers other benefits you may be receiving (Social Security disability benefits, for example) when figuring out how much long-term disability pay you'll receive.

For more detailed information, visit the Breast Cancer and Your Job pages.

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