January 14, 2008
Patricia Fobair LCSW, MPH
The Cancer Stigma in the Workplace: Common Myths
Questions to Ask Yourself When You Are Back at Work
Actions You Can Take
I was laid off right after I was diagnosed with cancer. After I finished treatment, I tried to get a job but nobody would hire me. I felt like I was a displaced person. I had the education, the experience, the talent, but because I had the big C I couldn't get a job anywhere. - Chris, 54-year-old prostate cancer survivor.
For centuries, fear of cancer has caused those with the disease to be stigmatized. By the nineteenth century, the public had developed a horrible phobia about cancer. People viewed the disease as sinister, relentless, and possibly contagious. Cancer was considered so shameful that people had trouble even speaking the word. Until the 1950s, doctors were as helpless in treating cancer as they were in explaining what caused it. They even regarded it with fear and fatalism, just as their patients did.
- Ignorance about cancer is what gave rise to the myths, misconceptions, and prejudices that still prevail today. Unfortunately, these often influence the way employers and coworkers regard those who have survived the disease. Among the myths and misconceptions are:
- Cancer is a death sentence
Cancer is contagious
Cancer makes workers unproductive
- When you do get back to work, you may notice many changes in the way your employer and coworkers treat you. Some of these changes may be subtle, some may be blatant. Ask yourself:
- Have your responsibilities been reduced?
Have you been transferred without prior consent?
Have you been overlooked for a promotion?
Are coworkers or superiors treating you differently?
Have you been required to take a medical exam that is unrelated to your job duties?
Have you been asked to provide detailed medical information?
Have your insurance benefits been cut?
- If you feel that your position in the workplace has changed, there are things you can do to improve or at least come to terms with the situation.
- Try not to read too much into someone else's actions.
Remember that your return to work will require adjustment on everyone's part.
If your health is being questioned, get a note from your doctor to confirm that you are able to perform your job duties.
If you feel you are being treated unfairly, request an informal meeting with your office mates and/or supervisor.
Keep copious notes if you feel discriminated against in any way.
If all else fails, you might consider filing a complaint with the management of your company or taking legal action.
If you are unable to keep your job because of a cancer-related disability or discrimination, vocational training is available through your state-run vocational rehabilitation administration and/or www.canceradvocacy.org.
- Legal Protection
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is sweeping legislation that made it illegal to discriminate against any qualified applicant who is disabled, has a history of disability or is perceived as having a disability. This bill enables survivors to have recourse if they have a legitimate case. For more information, please write to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1801 L St. NW, Washington, DC 20507.
Reprinted by permission