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Working with cancer

Hillary Wicai Aug 24, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The latest figure from the American Cancer Society is that almost 1.4 million Americans will develop some form of cancer this year — 650,000 of them will have jobs. Most will be able to go back to work. Patients and their doctors are figuring out how to live longer with the disease. But that means employers are having to figure out a way to live with cancer as well. From the Marketplace Work and Family Desk, Hillary Wicai reports.

HILLARY WICAI: Shannon was an interior design manager. Two years ago, at 34, she got laid off and then doctors diagnosed her with stage-four breast cancer. The doctors estimated she had less than six months left. The hospital brought her disability paperwork so she could start collecting her Social Security since they felt she couldn’t work. She didn’t want to sign.

SHANNON:“I just said no. I can’t imagine sitting at home obsessing about the cancer and where it’s going because I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Shortly after she got out of the hospital her old company called her back. Except, they weren’t thrilled with her diagnosis, if it meant she’d work less than 50 hours a week. Undaunted, Shannon found a part-time job with an employer eager to have her experience and willing to let her work around doctors appointments. Working not only pays better than disability, it makes her feel better.

SHANNON:“I’m more positive, I have more energy. When I wake up everyday I feel I have so much to be thankful for. I like my job, I like my co-workers, I feel productive.”

CARLOTTA JACOBSON:“After a woman or a man is diagnosed with cancer, the first question is, Am I going to live? The second question is, How can I work?”

Carlotta Jacobson runs Cosmetic Executive Women, a leading trade organization in the more than $54 billion US beauty industry. Jacobson had five powerful women in the business come to her in two years with concerns about their own cancer diagnoses. They didn’t want to take themselves off their successful career paths but didn’t know how to keep working. Her group first worked on resources for employees. But it wasn’t enough. Employees with cancer need help from employers.

JACOBSON:“Last year we did a survey and found that only 1 percent of the women that we surveyed felt they could look to their company for any kind of assistance. We felt that in order to help the employee we had to really help the employer as well.”

Work-life consultant Paul Rupert is helping to close that gap between a company that says, “Yeah, you can work with cancer as long as you put in your 50 hours a week,” and a company that’s more flexible. He co-produced a program for companies called “Managing Through Cancer” because he says most managers have to figure it out on their own without company support.

PAUL RUPERT:“You sort of have a double lottery: A) “I hope I don’t get cancer. But if I do, I hope I have a really good manager. Because if I don’t, I’m going to have a much harder time surviving the process.”

The program helps managers talk with employees about their diagnoses without invading privacy. It has tips on managing someone who may need to work a combination of full-time, part-time and from home. Most companies feel they already help sick employees, but providing leave and enabling an employee with cancer to work are different.RUPERT:“I mean, I had a conversation a week ago with a very, very bright and capable person in a company and she at first said, “Oh, I think we do this.” And then as I . . . She said, “You know, we don’t do this, we don’t do anything like this.”Publishing firm Rodale was such a company. Leaders thought they supported sick employees just fine until one of their owners, the granddaughter of the founder and the head of training and development in HR, got cancer. Heather Rodale was diagnosed with Melanoma two years ago.

HEATHER RODALE:“We as a company reakkt did a great job with the benefits. However, as a cancer patient, I thought that there was more we could do to be sensitive to the situations that just pop up.”

Like a bad test result or dealing with the piles of insurance paperwork. Now the company offers more resources, help with paperwork and flexible scheduling. Mangers know who to call for guidance when an employee gets cancer. The company also just introduced a new insurance option which helps an employee make ends meet while going through treatment. Rodale believes her cancer not only transformed her company, it helped make her a better performer.

RODALE:“I am much more globally and community focused now in the work that I do at Rodale. It’s just helping me to see more creative things to do, more innovative ways of working.”

Better for Heather Rodale and better for the company then just sending her home on disability.

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.

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