Last week I reached a milestone of sorts in my life as a worker: the conclusion of my relationship with my previous employer. This is an occasion about which I feel intensely ambivalent. The dealings I had with them were so unpleasant that I am glad that they are now behind me, and yet I am reluctant to accept that this may be the last full-time job I ever have.
In previous diaries I have mentioned the difficulties that I had with this employer, who basically moved to end my relationship with them when I suffered a complication from my chemotherapy just before my scheduled return to work, six weeks post-surgery. I sought legal counsel to file a grievance, and while I did not succeed in getting my job back, my attorney helped me obtain a reasonable settlement which compensated me for my lost wages as a result of my employer’s precipitous actions. (If anyone in SE Michigan ever needs a referral to an employment attorney, I have a good one for you.)
When I was in the middle of it, I thought that I would be happy to vent about it once it was done. I was angry to have been treated so peremptorily—given their unilateral decision about how to handle my illness, treatment, and recovery, and their refusal to consider making any accommodations. But now that it’s done, I feel a little different than I expected. I am angry, still, but I am also surprised and hurt to have been treated this way, when my former employer is allegedly a very progressive organization. We had one formal conference with representatives from the organization and their attorney, at their attorney’s office. My attorney, the friend who accompanied me and I all rolled our eyes at the ostentatious displays on the attorney’s office walls of posters and photographs promoting union solidarity. Good for thee, but not for me!
The suddenness of the shift in their attitude was deeply disconcerting to me. I went from receiving messages of appreciation for my work overall—and for delaying my surgery by two full weeks so that an important work meeting could happen before I left on my medical leave—to being told that I could not return to the office or have contact with anyone associated with them, virtually overnight. My boss called me two days after my surgery, one day after my return home, to ask me some questions about locating files (which were clearly labeled on the computer desktop, if she had cared to look), and I answered her politely and thoroughly. I came back to work for a half-day exactly one month after my surgery, still in the middle of my medical leave, to take part in another important meeting that had been scheduled long before my diagnosis. But all of this evident dedication counted for nothing when it came time to making accommodations for an employee facing a serious health crisis.
In the end, of course, I have to feel grateful that it turned out this way. Most importantly, it was far better for me to be completely removed from such a toxic and unsupportive environment. I don’t think that I ever would have been able to count on them keeping their word about accommodations for chemo or any other aspect of my care, and the stress that I would have had to endure as a consequence would not have been good for my recovery. The stress I coped with during the five months of negotiations was also considerable, but at least I did not have to interact with them regularly and appear to be a contented worker!
And as it happened, because of their hasty decision, I was able to apply for SSDI benefits soon after my reduction in hours/wages, which brought me below the income ceiling for so-called substantial gainful activity. My application was approved a mere three weeks after I filed it, in another instance of a complicated outcome incurring no small measure of ambivalence. Let me elaborate on that statement a little bit. Two months previously, I had gone into surgery to remove a tumor expecting to have minimal follow-up treatment. Instead, the diagnosis was so serious that my condition qualified me automatically for SSDI benefits as a disabled person likely to be out of work for at least twelve months, and quite likely permanently. If, that is, I managed to survive at all.
Last week, when the last transaction with my former employer was concluded—albeit not without additional effort on my part, since they did not adhere to the terms of our settlement agreement in terms of timing and notice—I also felt hugely relieved. I am still here, damn it, and it’s their loss that they didn’t figure out how to keep me during the toughest stretch of my recovery. I am still here, no longer entangled with them at all, and I relish the unexpected feeling of liberation.
I don’t know quite yet what I will do next by way of work. I plan to start back slowly, by putting out my shingle as an editor and writing coach. In a college town like mine, there should be plenty of prospective clients. It’ll be important for me to learn how to apportion my time and energy appropriately, since I am still not fully recovered, especially from the chemo after-effects. Assuming that my fatigue levels will not interfere unduly, I think that having more non-family, non-cancer related activity will be good for me, too. In other circumstances, I think having that regular distraction/external obligation would indeed have been helpful for me all along.
It’s complicated, isn’t it? At least, that’s been my experience so far. I’d definitely like to open the floor to more discussion, with more focused questions, but first let me share a couple of provocative resources.
Apparently, it’s not unusual for people with cancer to face workplace discrimination. (I know we're all surprised.) I came across one interesting article in a 2009 issue of the JAMA that reported on a meta-analysis of studies of job loss by people with cancer and concluded there was a statistically significant risk of losing one’s job post-diagnosis. Perhaps the most unusual conclusion in that meta-analysis is that women with breast cancer and reproductive organ cancers, and people with gastro-intestinal cancers, were at the highest risk of job loss. Any conjectures why that might be so?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has provided some protection to people with cancer, but of course there too the implicit message is that there has been a NEED for such legal protection. Straight from the EEOC, here’s a page of explanation of the protections the ADA offers. Of course, this is only a bare introduction to an extremely complex legal area. I could not have managed to obtain the settlement I did without having a lawyer able to apply leverage where he could.
Lastly, for those of us who are considering a change in jobs post-cancer, there’s this site: Cancer and Careers. I have only barely begun to investigate this site, but it seems promising. To start, it was created by some executives in the beauty industry who considered the prevalence of cancer among their own ranks and realized that there were many more questions than answers for someone trying to deal with a hostile, or perhaps simply an ignorant workplace environment. I admit, I'm impressed.
Now, for some discussion questions:
How and when did you tell people at work about your diagnosis and treatment? Who, specifically, did you tell? How did they respond?
Have you needed accommodations during treatment? How did you arrange for them?
Did you lose your job or suffer a demotion since your diagnosis? Have you willingly changed jobs post-cancer diagnosis?
What would you suggest to someone newly diagnosed, in terms of sharing this information in the workplace? Pros and cons—obvious and otherwise.
These are only the beginning, of course, so have at it as you will!
I planned to leave a discussion of financial impact of cancer for another diary—but if that’s part of your work story that you’d like to share now, please feel free to do so.