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Cancer Patients Should Not Have to Choose Between Treatment and Work

4 minute read

Bellesorte is Vice President of Advocacy for PathWays PA and National Implementation Director for Family Values @ Work.

I had another scan today.

In the three years since being diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, I’ve lost track of all the tests and treatments I’ve undergone. Lately, besides the six-month scans to make sure I remain in remission, I also deal with the spot checks — a cyst here, an ache there — that require additional follow-up. Today’s scan was one of those extras. My doctor said not to worry, so I haven’t. Mostly. This is just another day where I have to take a few hours out of work to be at the hospital.

Because, if you didn’t know, pretty much all of these doctor’s visits happen during my work hours. While everyone — from celebrities to major corporations to elected officials — shows their support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the promises often fall flat when people confronting cancer lack the policies they need to fight back.

When I found out in 2014 that I had breast cancer, I was pregnant with my healthy and happy son. From the moment I knew cancer was a possibility, my mind flooded with questions: How could this happen? When can I start chemo? Will my baby be okay? But thankfully, because I work for an organization that gives its workers paid sick days and access to short-term disability for bigger illnesses, there was one question I never had to ask: Can I afford to take the time off to get treatment without fear of losing my job or my paycheck?

Not everyone is so fortunate. Across the country, people face breast cancer without support from their workplaces. Low-income women suffer the worst. They are the least likely to have the flexibility to take time off for appointments, or to have long-term paid time to recover, or to receive a guarantee that they will keep their jobs after treatment — and they are the patients who need their income most.

Cancer patients have one priority: getting better. But the reality is, cancer is expensive — even with health insurance. And so at a time when people are struggling to survive, too many are also trying to keep food on the table, make it through the workday and keep face in order to keep their job.

Kesha Scrivner, a D.C. resident whose story is all too common, was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer in 2014. Disability wouldn’t make up enough of her paycheck, so she couldn’t take the time she needed to recover. Out of necessity, she did radiation on her lunch breaks, and then headed back to work — as so many other patients do.

Only 14% of Americans have paid leave through their employer, and fewer than 40% have short-term disability insurance. But half of men and a third of women will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes. Without paid leave, who will take care of us? How will we take care of ourselves?

Paid time off for me and my family meant that I never had to have chemotherapy without a family member by my side. It meant that I wasn’t alone on the day when I heard the doctor say, “It’s malignant.” It meant after chemo attacked my immune system, I didn’t have to worry about coworkers bringing their illness to the office.

Whatever the results of this scan, or the next one, or the one after that, I’m fortunate that I can focus my energy on the check-up rather than the stress of scheduling an appointment around work — or losing my pay so I can be healthy. I’m lucky. But keeping your job during a health crisis shouldn’t depend on luck.

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