Benefits Column

The Other Side of Melanoma

Looking back five years after a cancer diagnosis, our benefits columnist uses her own experience to remind employers of the importance of disability insurance.

Monday, June 30, 2014
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I remember every detail of the phone call.

My dermatologist's number appeared on my mobile phone's caller I.D. as I passed through the Henry Hudson toll plaza and headed toward the George Washington Bridge. My stomach flipped at the lack of her usual warm greeting and her neglect to ask, "Is this a good time to talk?"

A series of headlines sped through my brain as she launched into the reason for her call: Biopsy Results! Only 0.024 mm. Stage 1a Melanoma . . .

Next came a series of commands, including my need to have outpatient surgery within seven days and the name of the surgeon she recommended. She was so thrown by the news she was delivering, it never occurred to her to ask if I had a pen and paper -- never mind if I was driving a car.

She closed by emphasizing how minute my lesion was -- picture the head of pin, cut it in half and now continue to cut it in half again and again and again. I was left with an image of a single, pumped-up cell with its arm extended in the air while (pardon the expression) flipping the bird at my oh-so-healthy way of life.

I continued to drive through rush-hour traffic with the oddest array of questions floating through my consciousness: Who should I call? Would I lose any time from work? Would I lose my hair? What if my doctor is wrong about my prognosis?

I'll shorthand the remainder of the next four days and leave you with this summary.

You quickly learn that any type of disability -- including a cancer diagnosis -- is not about you. It's about everyone around you who knows and loves you. My medically well-connected sister and brother-in-law took over where I would receive treatment. In hindsight, I probably didn't need to see one of the most prominent surgeons in the nation, but it made us feel better and gave them some control over the uncontrollable.

I made a unilateral choice not to tell anyone other than the four people I talked with the first couple of days. It was an on-the-spot decision on my part. I went to my dermatologist's office to sign the release of information so she could forward my records to my brother-in-law. When neither she nor her assistant could make eye contact with me, I realized I never wanted to feel that distance again. As MetLife's Steve Clark explained in a speech he gave about a year before dying from pancreatic cancer, some of us "choose to go it alone."

So why am I now sharing my disability story? Well, on June 30, I hit the five-year hallmark and am on the other side of melanoma. Somehow, that makes everyone relax. I've always known my risk for recurrence is extremely low, but hitting this anniversary allows me to share my past without much fear of people withdrawing. And, as if the universe has aligned itself to my story, I will be taking on the role as president of the Council for Disability Awareness the next day.

I decided to take the personal risk of exposing myself to people who read this column because I wanted to give you a heads-up. Forget your employees for a moment. Most likely, you will experience a period of disability. If not one like mine, then a "planned disability period," such as having a child or repairing your bunions; or maybe you'll be out of work because of migraine headaches, asthma mismanagement or back pain. I'll spare you the facts here since I know it won't change your beliefs. But there's a good chance you will remember my story.

Let me add that my disability experience is not limited to this anecdote. During my working years, I've had two mountain-biking accidents that placed me on the disabled list, plus one concussion, two stress fractures, two broken toes, three episodes of back pain and a torn MCL. You may call me unlucky; I will tell you I live life off the sidelines. And so do most of you -- whether you realize it or not.

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For all my periods of disability, I've missed exactly one day of work. But I'm fortunate. I've mainly worked in sedentary occupations for employers that trusted my ability to work remotely or accommodated my temporary restrictions.

You probably know where I'm headed, at this point. You need disability insurance; and so do your employees. As an employer, you don't even have to pay for it. Simply allow a trusted insurance carrier to talk with your workers about voluntary coverage.

We know that someday we will probably experience some episode of disability, but we have to be able to afford it. Yet many employees can't. Case in point is the number of Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck. The Council for Enterprise Development reports that 44 percent of Americans are living with less than $5,887 in savings for a family of four. And since 56 percent of Americans currently have subprime credit, Time's Christopher Matthews once wrote: " . . . if emergencies arise, many Americans are forced to resort to high-interest debt from credit cards or payday loans."

But forget the statistics. The next time you're in New York City or see a picture of the George Washington Bridge, remember my story. And then, if you don't already, do something to protect yourself as well as your employees.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.

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