Increasingly, breast cancer patients see work as therapeutic. For employers, the issue is telling employees it's OK to take time off
By Laura DiDio, Managing, July 27, 1998
Jeanne felt the lump in her left breast as she was dressing in the morning. She wasn't terribly worried. After all, statistics show that 80% of breast lumps are benign. At any rate, she didn't have time to worry. Jeanne, a vice president and MIS manager at a New York brokerage house in her late 30s, was rushing to catch a plane to speak at a business meeting. She filed the nagging doubts away along with her presentation. Unfortunately, the lump was malignant.
Ellen's story is similar, but it hits closer because she's a manager at Computerworld. Like Jeanne, Ellen, who's in her early 30s, detected her breast lump herself and didn't think it was cancer. Ellen got the bad news from her doctor at the worst possible time - at the height of Computerworld's production schedule.
Overnight, Jeanne, Ellen and the five other women I spoke with became statistics. They are among the one in eight women between the ages of 20 and 95 who the National Cancer Institute estimates will develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that 178,700 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. And 1,600 men will get the disease.
STAYING ON TRACK
But as breast cancer becomes an unfortunate-yet-more-commonplace fact of life, women managers in the high-pressure, high-tech world are starting a trend of their own. They frequently choose to continue working full time and arrange their various chemotherapy and radiation treatments so that their careers - and personal lives - will be impacted as little as possible.
It's a trend that Dr. Helena Chang says she's seeing more of as director of the Revlon UCLA Breast Cancer Center in Los Angeles. The center is at the forefront of developing methods of early breast cancer detection. It's also a pioneer in helping women deal with the psychological and social after effects of the cancer.
"Women whose jobs involve a lot of physical activity tend to take more time to recuperate from breast cancer treatment. Women at higher-level, higher-paid leadership positions tend to be more aggressive and handle both job and cancer at the same time," Chang says.
All of the women I spoke with emphasized that they had the full support of their superiors, and it would not have been a problem to take days or even weeks off while undergoing treatment.
Jeanne required two operations and did take a few weeks off to recuperate. But she didn't miss a day of work during her regimen of chemotherapy and radiation.
"Work was therapeutic for me," Jeanne says. "I didn't want time off. I wanted normalcy."
Ellen expressed similar sentiments. "I didn't want to feel like I was sick. I wanted my regular life. It was very important for me not to miss work," she says.
To accomplish that, the women scheduled their chemotherapy treatments for late Friday afternoons. "That let me work the whole week and sleep on the weekends," Jeanne says. She was also taking Nupogen shots to boost her white blood cell count. "This was great because it meant I could get the chemo in the doctor's office instead of going to the hospital, which took more time."
Ellen's Friday afternoon chemotherapy treatments were followed by six weeks of radiation, five days a week, first thing in the morning."It wasn't until the fifth week that I got tired. But I was determined to make it through the day no matter how many cups of coffee it took, " she says.
In response to life in the '90s that includes realities such as breast cancer, high-level executives are becoming increasingly sensitized to their employees' needs to take time off, telecommute or rearrange their schedules to accommodate treatment or family crisis situations.
"Many people don't want to take time off or ask their bosses for special treatment," observes Emilie McCabe, a vice president in IBM's Software Solutions division. "As a manager, I've sometimes stepped in and encouraged them to do so. I feel it's my responsibility to let people know that it's OK to take time for themselves."
Chang agrees. "Health takes priority. I understand that women with breast cancer feel more upbeat going back to work for even half a day," she says. "But I also tell them, 'You don't have to be a superwoman. If you feel exhausted, take more time at home. The work will still be there when you get back.' " DiDio is Computerworld's senior editor, security and network operating systems.