Working Through It

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Lehman Brothers. When we hear of rich corporate giants going down, it's easy to forget that these are institutions where thinking, feeling human beings work. People who face the same problems we all must deal with. I was reminded of a story I did last year about a woman who battled breast cancer and how that company responded.

Her story may help people navigating through this devastating disease find the strength to hold onto their careers and move forward with their lives.

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Meet Hannah

As managing director of corporate communications at Lehman Brothers, you can imagine Hannah Burns' relief when the company reported its quarterly earnings in June 2005. Getting the figures out to the public was, and still is, one of her main job responsibilities. Instead of going into her boss' office to report on the earnings coverage, however, she had to sit him down and deliver the most difficult news of her life.

"I've got good news and bad news," she told him. "The good news is that it's early and very treatable, the bad news is that I have breast cancer."

Burns describes herself as a private person, but she went straight to her boss' office when her doctor delivered the news over the phone. "Being in my function I can't just disappear and not tell anybody. I just wanted to get it off of my chest and move on. It was an easy conversation. He was incredibly sympathetic and shocked."

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This mother of two daughters had her disease detected early, so she thought that she would be able to "get it off of her chest and move on." The next few months, however, would prove to be a physical and emotional challenge that she could not have imagined.

Three weeks later, there was the surgery, which was followed by a rigorous four-month period of chemotherapy and bone-marrow shots, and then seven weeks of radiation. In a feat that can be described as nothing short of heroic, aside from a one-week recovery period after surgery, Hannah only missed one day of work throughout her four months of treatments.

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"In addition to wanting to teach my daughters a lesson on how to work through adversity, the firm was so supportive that I wanted to do my absolute best to show my gratitude," says Burns. "The firm said do whatever you need to do to get well. Knowing you've got that support is half the battle."

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.

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"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.

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"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.

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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.

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"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.

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Still, trying to work while facing this challenge is something that should be considered very carefully. "There are some people who are able to work, and some people who need to take leaves of absence," Oratz says.

"The main challenge is that women don't want to disappoint their co-workers, they don't want to feel that they're not pulling their share. Women are crazy about this. They have to get permission to make adjustments," she adds.

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If you do decide to work through this challenge, according to Cancers and Careers, you should talk to your doctor before your employer. As mentioned in the discussion about Hannah Burns, you need to know what you can expect physically and psychologically, so that you can be clear about your needs to your employer.

Also, find out what your company has done in the past if this situation has come up, particularly when it comes to leave and benefits. You are trying to determine if former policies will work for you. Suppose, for example, you want to work from home, yet you find out this has not been allowed. You want to be able to bring that up to your boss, as something you will need.

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Maybe your company has never been in this situation before. You need to find out if it is going to be up to you to guide them, when it comes to helping you remain as productive as possible.

"How much you tell your boss depends on your own personal style," according to Sweeney. "If you have an open relationship, be open. If not, just present the situation, and tell them what you will need."

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Sweeney also points out that it is important to know your legal rights. In the U.S., for example, people with cancer are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act which gives you rights in the workplace. In addition, protection is provided under the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year. The weeks do not have to be taken consecutively.

Human resource departments can be a great resource when it comes to knowing your legal rights. They can also be of great help with your insurer. A company calling on your behalf will likely have a lot more leverage with an insurance firm than you calling as an individual. If you take time off for treatments, you can expect to have a lot of mixed emotions as you transition from patient back to employee.

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Pay close attention to how you're feeling. If you don't feel psychologically up to speed, you may want to seek out some counseling or attend workshops and seminars to refresh your work skills. Physically, take a look at your workspace. Tell your employer if it needs to be redesigned with something like back support.

If you have an open relationship with your co-workers, you will likely want to share details of your recovery. If you're more private you may just want to say "I'm doing fine," and don't be afraid to leave it at that."

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Stacey Tisdale is a veteran on-air financial journalist. She's the author of "The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money."

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