Deciding to tell your colleagues and your boss about your thyroid cancer can be a challenge. Learn when and how to share your diagnosis with those at work.
Once you and your medical team decide on your thyroid cancer treatment, you will have an idea of how much time you might need off from work and which side effects could mean missed hours here and there. Fatigue might leave you with less energy on a daily basis for a few weeks; irritability and cramps can result from your synthetic hormone treatment while the best dosage is being determined. Talking honestly with your employer about these possibilities can make it easier for you to adjust your work schedule, if the need arises.
Thyroid Cancer at Work: Your Medical Leave Rights
Depending on the company you work for and its policies and attitudes, you may find the flexibility you need — or not. You have the most protection against any kind of discrimination if you work somewhere that has 50 or more employees, says Greta E. Greer, MSW, LCSW, director of survivor services for the American Cancer Society, because such workplaces must abide by the federal government’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed in 1993.
“If you’re protected by FMLA, then you can expect that your employer will make reasonable accommodations if, for instance, you need flex time while you are receiving radiation treatments for your thyroid cancer,” she says. At the heart of FMLA is the provision that an eligible employee can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period for a medical reason such as cancer.
“If you’re employed by a small business, you may have less job protection,” Greer says. “Still, it’s hard to imagine that in this day and time, an employer would fire you over a cancer diagnosis, especially if you’re just going to be out a few days for thyroid cancer surgery,” she notes.
Even smaller workplaces — those with at least 15 employees — are legally bound to follow the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and not discriminate against employees on the basis of their physical limitations. In many cases, cancer may not be thought of as a disability. Nevertheless, if your cancer or the side effects of your treatment lead to lasting difficulty carrying out activities of daily living (bathing, dressing, grooming, household tasks, and the like), then the protection afforded by the ADA does apply to you.
Thyroid Cancer and Work: Getting Good Counsel
There are many different variables that will affect whether and how you tell your boss about your thyroid cancer diagnosis. Fortunately, there are also many resources you can turn to for advice on your specific situation.
“Call the American Cancer Society toll-free number, 1-800-ACS-2345, any time with questions,” Greer urges. Cancer information specialists are available 24 hours a day to provide guidance about employment and any other issues related to cancer.
If you need to consult an attorney who specializes in employment issues, contact your local bar association; these groups often provide legal referral services, sometimes at no cost.
Thyroid Cancer and Work: An Employee Perspective
Marcella Reed (not her real name), a 36-year-old attorney who works for the federal government in Washington, D.C., was treated for papillary thyroid cancer five years ago. She feels fortunate that she “didn’t have to worry about job security. But for privacy reasons, I didn’t want the entire workplace to know. After the diagnosis was confirmed and I knew what the treatment would be, I notified the absolute minimum number of people at work, those who had to know why I would be gone from the office for one week and then another,” she recalls.
A major reason Reed kept her diagnosis quiet was that she didn’t want her thyroid cancer to alter “the perception others had of my fitness and health,” she explains. In a competitive work environment, cancer can be seen as a liability, even if termination is not a concern.
Thyroid Cancer and Work: An Employer Perspective
Carl (not his real name) is a manager at a major insurance firm on Long Island, N.Y., whose administrative assistant was treated for thyroid cancer two years ago. The assistant was away from work for about four weeks after surgery and radioactive iodine therapy. “She told me that she would probably be quite moody until her [synthetic thyroid hormone] dose was properly regulated, and I understood," Carl recalls. "She was very tired, too, in the weeks after she first returned."
Carl appreciated this level of communication and the fact that his employee made weekday doctor's appointments in the morning or late afternoon to avoid missing a lot of work. "She also told me about them as far in advance as she could, so we could have someone to cover her phone," he adds. "A little consideration goes a long way from the perspective of both the person who has cancer and the one who works with him or her.”
If, after weighing your options, you decide to share your thyroid cancer diagnosis with your employer, consider doing so early in the course of your treatment. That way, you'll be able to devote your energy to getting better.
Last Updated: 05/14/2009