Working Through It

A guide to battling breast cancer while managing your career.

Not only did Lehman provide Burns with inspiration, but the firm also gave her the flexibility to work through her challenge. She had her treatments on Wednesdays, did not have to return to work, and she was able to come in late on Thursdays. Burns says her worst side effects set in on Friday afternoons, and Lehman allowed her to leave in the afternoon. The company also provided her with a car service to and from the office throughout the entire ordeal.

“I felt sorry for myself for about five minutes when I got the diagnosis. All you have to do is look around, and you see so many people so much worse off. People who don’t have the resources, people who don’t have the education, people who don’t have an employer like Lehman, people whose prognosis is bad.”

The fact that Hannah was open and clear about her needs likely provided Lehman with the opportunity to rise to the challenge. Kate Sweeney of Cancer and Careers, an organization that provides advice and support for people with the disease, says that it’s the employee’s demeanor that sets the tone for their reception in the workplace.

“Many employers, not out of ill will, don’t know what their employees want to do, so they assume they want to take a medical leave. Many women in this situation would prefer options that allow them to remain productive and involved, things like flexible work schedules.”

Sweeney adds that women should talk to their doctor before their employer and find out exactly what they can expect from their treatments. That way they can come to their bosses with a clear plan of action.

Hannah, for example, purposely scheduled her treatments on Wednesdays. That way she would have the weekend to recover when the worst of the side effects hit about 48 hours later. She knew she would need Friday afternoons off.

Hannah is also quick to point out that she’s one of the lucky ones. Physically, she reacted about as well as can be expected to chemo and radiation.

“Work is a very important part of a woman’s life, and if she can continue to work, she’s going to do better,” says Dr. Ruth Oratz, a renowned oncologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at New York University School of Medicine. “But they need to be flexible and realize that they may have to make some changes,” she adds.

If This Happens to You

Technology and medical advancements have combined to give women more treatment options when it comes to battling breast cancer. Doctors now have the tools to be more specific when it comes to treating individuals. They can offer some women treatments such as hormone therapy that are less toxic than chemotherapy.