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Breast Cancer & Your Job: Should You Tell Your Employer?

After getting hit with a breast cancer diagnosis, your mind races with a list of uncertainties. While the most important questions you need to answer will involve your health, inevitably you’ll reach the question: Do I tell my employer?

The fears set in first. Will I be fired and lose my health insurance? Will I be seen as unfit to work? Will I be pitied by my coworkers? Will I be able to work?Click To Tweet

All of these questions are valid concerns, but when deciding whether or not to tell your employer about your diagnosis, begin by talking to your doctor to determine your upcoming course of treatment. If you undergo a lumpectomy and do not need chemotherapy, radiation or reconstructive surgery, you may not have to fully disclose your diagnosis to your employer. In this scenario, outside of requesting a few days off for an undisclosed surgery, the time needed for appointments during work hours is likely going to be minimal. However, if your course of treatment extends for months, being more forthright with your employer about your diagnosis may be necessary in order to receive the proper amount of time off for treatment.

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The good news? If you have worked more than 1,250 hours for a company with more than 50 people, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows you to receive up to 12 weeks’ time off that you can use for your treatments and recovery. The bad news? It’s unpaid time off, and if you work for a small company, you aren’t protected with this option.

Reasons to Remain Silent

The fear of losing your job or a potential promotion is a valid reason not to tell. Denver survivor, Jennifer Bonger, says that she was transparent with her employer regarding her diagnosis and found she regretted doing so. She shares, “On my annual review, I was marked for ‘being distracted’ and ‘not giving 100 percent,’ even though I was actually exhausted from radiation and giving 100 percent of all I had.”

The Federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act protects you from losing your job or promotion due to your cancer diagnosis if the company has more than 15 employees. If you get fired, however, you will need to fight it, and may not have the energy while undergoing treatment, as was the case for Aurora, Colorado survivor Lorie Neiswander, who told her company, was put on disability, and was then replaced.

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When deciding to share your diagnosis also consider your personality. A diagnosis can lead to a whirlwind of changes in your life; one benefit of keeping it private is having a place to go that has a semblance of your pre-cancer normalcy. You may want to avoid receiving too much attention and pity. If you are concerned about being treated differently, you may want to keep your cancer a secret from work. One survivor, who would like to remain anonymous, explains why she didn’t share with her work, “They know I have something – a chronic disease – because I’m absent from work to go to doctor’s appointments for a few hours, but they don’t know what it is. It’s a private matter that is not their business; I’m reserved in these matters.”

Reasons to Be an Open Book

Sharing your breast cancer diagnosis with your employer becomes necessary in some instances. For one, if your position at the company is one that is unique and could be difficult for others to fill in your absence, you may have to assist in preparations and training to ensure someone can cover for you. Another reason? It simply may be physically impossible to hide your fight with breast cancer, especially when undergoing chemotherapy, losing your hair, and being fatigued and sick. Again, having full knowledge of your cancer treatment plan will empower you to make the best decision.

Perhaps the best reason for sharing your diagnosis is gaining an additional support system to help you through tough days and celebrate with you during your wins.

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Reynita Alcisto of Los Angeles says, “I told all of my coworkers – all women and mostly moms. They gathered together donations and made sure my groceries were covered when I was on leave. They also asked the company if they could donate their unused sick time to me so I didn’t have to worry about pay. They were very supportive.”

Ultimately, the decision to share your diagnosis is up to you, but as Kelly Byce of San Diego reminds fellow survivors, “It is important that you don’t stress or worry about where cancer is going to take you. The journey is a day-by-day process.”

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