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What Women Should Tell Their Bosses When They Have Cancer

The Pink Fund founder on taking work/life balance to a new level


We hear a lot about the struggles of working women and the notion that we can create some semblance of order between managing responsibilities at home and at work. It’s the elusive work/life balance every working woman longs to achieve. But throw a cancer diagnosis into the equation and that’s when things can really start to tailspin.

Missed days of work. A treatment protocol that may leave you with multiple side effects that make working incredibly hard. Add to this juggling act the thousands of dollars in lost income and medical co-pays. And oh, one more thing: You may be fighting for your life.

How can you cope with, much less manage, this balancing act? Once you’ve regained consciousness after the shock of diagnosis and catch your breath, there are many decisions to make around your care and around your work.

A little more than a decade ago, I found myself in this same situation. And what I realized right away is that unlike any other milestone event in your life — such as getting married or having a baby — this is one of those for which we do not plan.

My Advice to Working Women With Cancer

One of the biggest questions you will need to wrap your head around is whether you should tell your employer and coworkers about your diagnosis. On the one hand, the idea of support at work seems comforting. But as your situation continues on, the trade-off for that initial support may cause some issues down the line. Here’s my advice:

Consider the work culture. You probably already know if disclosing your medical situation is wise. Every employer is different. How have other colleagues been treated when they experienced a personal situation requiring support from the boss? You can expect the same.

Once you decide to disclose, whom should you tell? Remember, if you talk to your boss or supervisor about this, she or he may have to go to the Human Resources department. So you may just want to go there first. HR’s experiences working with others in a health crisis may help.

Consider the law — and know your rights. If you need to take a leave or request a reasonable work accommodation, you will have to disclose that, although not the exact diagnosis.

Consider the side effects of treatment. When deciding what you should tell, you may want to wait to see how well you tolerate treatment. If you work for a company of 50 or more employees, you may decide to take the federally permitted unpaid medical leave of up to 90 days (which does not have to be taken consecutively). This will allow you to schedule treatment and recovery time and lose the least amount of time off work.

If your job performance suffers, it is prudent to share why, rather than risk a poor performance review when no one understands the reason for the change in your productivity. You may even be able to work from home a few days a week to boost your work performance. Explore this option with your employer, and set up an agreement in writing. Laying out expectations can avoid future misunderstandings.

What to tell? The truth, the whole truth and every detail of the truth? Remember the KISS acronym: Keep It Simple Sister. Save the down and dirty for a support group, where confidentiality is Queen.

Social media — friend or foe? Another big issue that can affect your work is what you share about your diagnosis on social media. Remember, some of what you may post seeking advice, reassurance and asking for thoughts, prayers and even financial support will likely be viewed by your colleagues. Set your privacy settings to a level with which you are comfortable.

The Financial Challenges of Cancer

In spite of all the planning you do, you still may experience a loss in wages or high medical expenses — a situation known as “financial toxicity.” So how do you manage that? The loss of income for some folks is more devastating than the cancer itself. It was for me; I lost everything during my cancer battle and faced the potential of our family becoming homeless.

This personal experience is what moved me to create The Pink Fund,  an organization to help women with breast cancer manage their finances while going through treatment so they can focus on getting better.

If you have just been diagnosed, take a deep breath and approach this the same way you approach everything else in life: with your full attention and an action plan.

By Molly MacDonald
Molly MacDonald is founder and executive director of The Pink Fund, which provides financial support to breast cancer survivors to help them meet basic needs, decrease stress levels and focus on healing while improving survivorship outcomes. She is a breast cancer survivor.

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