How To Avoid Getting Fired For Having Cancer

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We linked last week to a Dana-Farber Cancer Institute post about how to tell your boss you have cancer, and a reader responded with this troubling comment:

My employer was initially very supportive but when my cancer treatment was over, he fired me.
I had been working there for seven years and had received great performance reviews and bonuses. When my employer called me into his office to fire me he pulled out a calendar and pointed out when my work had suffered. He stated that since these times did not coincide with the dates of my surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, that he was justified in letting me go.
He didn’t realize (and there’s no reason he would have) how much the experience of having cancer had affected me emotionally and mentally. I had seen no reason to stay home from work throughout my treatment except for the days I felt very sick and that decision ended up back-firing on me.
When I was finished with my treatment, I wanted to return to work without delay to reassume my identity as an upbeat business woman, not a bald cancer patient.
My advice to those about to undergo cancer treatment would be to:
•take a formal medical leave of absence. Don’t think you only need to stay home on the days you feel physically ill.
•be aware that, very often, the most difficult times begin after treatment ends, just when you expect and are desperate to return to normalcy.

I checked back in with Dana-Farber for more light on this comment. Did Nancy Borstelmann, the institute's director of patient and family support and education, second this person's advice? What was her impression of how often this kind of thing happens?

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]'Completing treatment is often met with a seemingly paradoxical increase in distress.'[/module]

Does she agree that the most difficult time is often after treatment ends? What recourse does a patient have if they're fired like this commenter, and how often do they succeed in getting any sort of reparations?

She kindly responded:

Business practices can vary from company to company and, unfortunately, discrimination does happen.

In terms of a termination process, usually an employee needs to be told that there are specific performance concerns and what needs to be done to improve, etc. Verbal and written warnings with documented action plans and time frames are common human resources practices.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, is an important piece of legislation that can protects certain rights in situations where health issues require a medical leave. However, not everyone is covered by FMLA, so it is important to check with the employer about their eligibility. The human resources department should have this information.

One suggestion is to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for direction about a specific situation, or if one believes that there are discriminatory practices occurring, to consider consulting a lawyer who deals with employment-related issues.

Completing treatment is often met with a seemingly paradoxical increase in distress. This is something that we hear often from our patients. When treatment is over, some patients feel uncomfortably alone and unsafe, disconnected from the health care team and the active treatment aimed at the cancer. With treatment over, a patient may expect, and maybe everyone else around them as well, that things should go "back to normal." There needs to be, however, time for the person to experience both physical and emotional healing. Sometimes going back to work is part of that healing. It is also important for the person to recognize how they are really feeling and to make sure that they are getting the necessary support as they move forward.

My micro-rant: I wish that employers who fire workers recovering from cancer could just be publicly shamed. Could somebody please start a Website?

This program aired on January 30, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.