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First Match

Coping with Cancer

An increasing number of cancer patients are choosing to remain in the workplace. It's incumbent upon HR to ensure they have everything they need to remain productive during this difficult time.

Monday, November 16, 2015
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"You have cancer."

Three simple words, but together, they comprise one of the most-dreaded phrases in the English language. More than 1.5 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, according to New York-based Cancer and Careers, a national nonprofit organization that empowers and educates people with cancer on how to thrive in the workplace. The Atlanta-based American Cancer Society reports there were an estimated 14.5 million people living with cancer in the U.S. in 2014.

While their initial inclination may be to cave after receiving such a devastating diagnosis, the vast majority of cancer patients want to continue working, says Rebecca Nellis, chief mission officer for Cancer and Careers.

(Editor's note: Cancer and Careers is a program of the CEW Foundation, the charitable arm of Cosmetic Executive Women Inc., a New York–based nonprofit trade organization of 5,000+ executives in the beauty, cosmetics, fragrance and related industries.)

In many instances, it's a matter of maintaining healthcare benefits, but for most cancer patients, Nellis says, it's about maintaining some semblance of normalcy. Continuing to work gives them a sense of purpose, keeps their mind off their illness, and provides a much-needed support network. Indeed, 73 percent of employed survivors said working during treatment helped them cope, according to a recent online survey conducted by Harris on behalf of Cancer and Careers of 913 U.S. cancer patients and survivors.

"For people who have cancer, continuing to work makes them feel like they are normal, life is normal, and this is just something they are dealing with on the side," says Laurel Pickering, president and CEO of the Northeast Business Group on Health in New York. "It's really helpful because it helps them feel like their diagnosis is not as disruptive and tragic as it could be." 

With an increasing number of cancer patients staying in the workplace, "HR can play a huge role" in helping afflicted individuals manage the myriad issues that arise while undergoing cancer treatment and continuing to work, says Brenna Haviland Shebel, director for the Institute on Healthcare Costs and Solutions at the National Business Group on Health in Washington. This includes working with individuals to help them make important decisions with regard to how much they should work, what kind of special accommodations they may need, and how much information they should divulge to their coworkers. HR can also help employees with cancer navigate the complicated world of healthcare benefits and forge a greater understanding of applicable laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

By and large, HR managers want to help employees as they fight their battle with cancer, says Pickering, but their good intentions often are hamstrung by privacy concerns or lack of knowledge about available resources. In recent years, however, it's become increasingly common for employees to divulge their cancer diagnosis to their supervisor or HR manager, says Shebel. That opens the door to sitting down for a frank discussion about their needs.

Before those conversations take place, Shebel recommends employees talk to their surgeon or oncologist about their desire to remain on the job and ask their advice on how much they will be able to work, what to expect during their treatment and recovery, and what, if any, restrictions, will be placed on their activities. That sets the stage for a more productive discussion with HR about schedules, reasonable accommodations and leaves of absence.

When it comes to helping employees with cancer, HR professionals have a number of options, according to Shebel. They can restructure job duties for employees dealing with physical or cognitive deficits brought on by chemotherapy. If full-time work isn't an option while undergoing treatment, HR can help arrange a part-time schedule. Working from home is another option, if the individual's job will allow for it. If no other option will meet the employee's needs, it may be possible to switch them to a different position altogether, at least for the duration of the illness and recovery period.

Navigating the healthcare system and understanding healthcare benefits is a complex undertaking even when one is healthy. For an employee already mentally and physically overtaxed by a cancer diagnosis, it can seem insurmountable. According to Nellis, HR has a definite role to play in reviewing benefits and "running interference" with insurance companies to enact a resolution for an ailing employee. More often than not, however, assisting a cancer-afflicted employee is less about becoming subject-matter experts and more about referring the employee to the appropriate resources, says Pickering.

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HR can help those individuals by directing them to nurses or case managers employed by the health plan provider or to external vendors specializing in cancer support, Pickering says. Doing so provides the employee with expert guidance for mapping out a treatment plan and ensuring they are accessing the highest quality of care by identifying those doctors, hospitals and treatment facilities with the best survival rates.

Unlike illnesses such as the flu, which typically result in an employee taking several consecutive days off work, or a serious surgical procedure like a coronary bypass, after which the patient is out of work for several weeks in a row, cancer treatment can be unpredictable. Chemotherapy may cause unrelenting nausea and fatigue, causing an employee to need time-off with little warning. Under the FMLA, individuals are allowed to take intermittent leave, defined as sporadic blocks of time sometimes lasting just a few hours, to handle such situations.

However, once their 12 weeks of guaranteed leave has been exhausted, a cancer-diagnosed employee is left with nowhere to turn but to take unpaid leave. According to Nellis, some companies have established "leave banks," where employees donate unused vacation or sick time so that ailing colleagues can attend to their illness while maintaining their income.

"There's still work to be done," says Nellis, "but there is a lot of opportunity for employers who want to be supportive to do some pretty simple things."

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