Many people diagnosed with [fill in the blank] have understanding bosses, co-workers, and a workplace that tries to accommodate them. Many others, however, do not.
I fell into the latter category with my breast cancer diagnosis and treatments.
Fighting cancer is devastating enough, but fighting for one’s rights in the workplace at the same time is especially exhausting, daunting, and demoralizing.
I am lucky at this point in my life. My current workplace is different than the one I had during my illness. When employees get ill, my employer takes care of their needs and rallies behind them to ensure they don’t have to worry about politics at a tender time like this.
For this posting, my former employer will remain anonymous. My goal is not to point fingers at a particular place of work. The point of this posting is to discuss a very real problem that is not always talked about — the workplace harassment of those afflicted by illness.
My story is just one example of this, although I have heard many people recount the same types of stories.
Before my breast cancer diagnosis, I had a reputation for outstanding work at the company. A talented, trustworthy worker with a great work ethic, I was promoted twice and enjoyed my seniority, as well as the relationship I had with my boss.
Then came cancer.
At first, everyone rallied around me. My boss hugged me several times and told me I had her support. Co-workers were on hand to hug and talk with me, and expressed their heartfelt sorrow — especially on the day I received the phone call — at work — telling me I had cancer. When I was home recovering from surgery, my company sent me flowers and cookies.
I felt cared about.
But once faced with the reality: the grueling, never-ending ugliness of the disease, my boss became
nasty not so nice. I had radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously, and that was a shitty, utterly shitty challenging treatment regimen (of course no cancer or its treatment is a walk in the park, unless that park is in hell).
Throughout radiation and chemotherapy, I struggled to stay standing and to stave off infection after damn infection. Even more unexpectedly, I struggled to stay employed.
Radiation — An Inconvenient Truth
Not only did I deal with the physical and emotional effects of being burned to Kingdom Come, but I also got burned by an inflexible, harsh employment situation.
Every weekday morning, for 33 mornings, I had an 8:10 a.m. radiation time slot, but work normally began promptly at 8:30 a.m. My doctor’s note explained my radiation regimen time slot. My company and I agreed that, factoring in travel time, I would have to arrive to work late, around 10 a.m., but I would leave work late (6 p.m.) to make up the time.
I would be working a full day every day. I asked for no special favors, just reasonable accommodations.
Some co-workers continued to remain supportive. Other people envied me because I got to walk in late. My boss started giving me the cold shoulder and avoided talking with me. Eventually, she decided that each day I was to log in my hours like a good little girl and submit them in writing to her.
Didn’t it occur to her that I was trustworthy? Didn’t it occur to her that for six years prior to my cancer diagnosis, I regularly came to work at 7 a.m. everyday without compensation?
Didn’t it occur to her that I had cancer?
Chemotherapy — A More Inconvenient Truth
I hardly ever took vacation days prior to cancer diagnosis, which turned out to work in my favor because I had accrued many days. Chemo days were Thursdays, and I would also take Fridays off — a four-day weekend once every three or four weeks. My vacation days were spent on a chemo getaway.
Still, some at work envied me for the “preferential” treatment I was getting. One co-worker told me, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you have it so much easier than all of us who can’t get time off so easily.”
Was she freakin’ kidding me, I thought, as I kept trying to hold down my feeble lunch.
A senior administrator further broke my heart when she said light-heartedly, “Our insurance premiums have gone up because of you.”
The Crying Game
When one is in a strong position — healthy — a person can more calmly and more assertively stand up for his/her rights. When one is weakened by illness, not so much.
Things got worse. Our company laid off a key person in our department, and during my treatment period we were all asked to do overtime and work weekends in addition to our Mondays through Fridays. I privately told my boss that I couldn’t work weekends, as that was my time to recover from the week. She said we would all have to pitch in, and I politely told her I couldn’t work weekends.
When I told my oncologist about this, he was livid. He wrote a note saying I was not, under any circumstances, to work weekends. Doing so, he said, would undermine my health.
I gave the letter to my boss.
It only pissed her off.
She called me into her office, told me to shut the door, and let me have it. She said, “Over the past six months, you have developed an attitude problem. You are refusing to do your share of the work.” I explained that I had a cancer diagnosis and treatments during this time, and she responded that I was using my cancer as an excuse for being lazy.
She added that I used to be a team player and now I’m refusing to work.
I couldn’t handle it anymore. I started sobbing and looked at her.
She was smiling.
I left her office distraught. As the sole breadwinner in a dysfunctional family situation, I needed to keep my job. But my health took priority.
I didn’t work on weekends. And there was nothing my boss could do.
Within the next six months, I found a better employer. Still, what irks me are all the stories I’ve heard from others about how poorly they were treated by their bosses during and after cancer diagnosis and treatment. Of course, I’ve heard plenty of positive stories about kinder, gentler companies treating their ill employees well.
And that’s the way it should be.
Have you or anyone you know been treated poorly or exceptionally well in the workplace due to a diagnosis/treatment of an illness?
Please feel free to share stories and comment.
Tags: illness and boss, illness and co-workers, working conditions and illness, workplace and cancer