Going On With Life: Women Juggling Cancer And Career. U.S. Employers Rank Last As Source Of Support For Working Women With Cancer

For Shirley Mertz, continuing to work throughout the past 14 years as she battled breast cancer was not only natural but also critical to her well-being.

“After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, continuing to live a normal life was extremely important, and for me, normal meant working,” said Mertz, a former assistant superintendent for a public high school district in suburban Chicago, Ill., who is now 59 and a full-time breast cancer advocate. “I was fortunate enough to have a sympathetic employer and compassionate co-workers, but I had to look outside my office for the support and information I needed to cope with cancer. I never really considered that workplace resources might be an option.”

Mertz’s experience is echoed in the results of a national Harris Interactive survey of working women diagnosed with cancer, which, astonishingly, found that a mere 1 percent of them consider their company a source of information or support in coping with their illness. Although they are generally satisfied with interpersonal support and report an ability to balance the demands of their illness and their careers, many survey participants are in fact suffering treatment-related difficulties on the job, such as fatigue, nausea and hair loss, but are not finding help in workplace programs. The survey was initiated by Cosmetic Executive Women Foundation’s (CEWF) Cancer and Careers program and supported by a grant from Roche.

Carlotta Jacobson, President of CEW, a leading trade organization in the beauty industry, says it’s essential for employers to find ways to anticipate and address the needs of their employees who have cancer.

“Our survey shows that, despite their stoic attitude, women with cancer often struggle with physical, emotional and other issues in the workplace,” said Jacobson. “To address their needs, we’ve developed the Cancer and Careers program, which includes free information, guidance and tools for both employees and their managers.”

Cancer and Careers is an online and offline resource for working women with cancer and their employers. The program’s Web site, cancerandcareers.org, includes more than 100 online articles, downloadable tools, charts and checklists, and a searchable database of 400-plus cancer resources. CEWF also offers the Managing Through Cancer program to help managers, HR professionals and CEOs initiate policy changes, develop supportive ser-vices, and design flexible work arrangements.

CEWF’s survey also revealed that women with cancer need more than just workplace support to help them address the challenges they face on the job. Nearly three-fourths of women surveyed expressed a desire for a less intrusive treatment to a working woman’s lifestyle. Citing convenience and fewer side effects as rationale, 86 percent of women said they would prefer an oral chemotherapy treatment to intravenous administration.

“Because I took an oral chemotherapy pill instead of going to the clinic all the time for IV treatment, I missed fewer days of work and felt more like myself,” said Mertz. “I also didn’t have any hair loss, which helped me to maintain my self-esteem.”

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Career Development Takes Work

Do you currently have the career of your dreams? If so, congratulations on all your hard work, because I’m quite sure that your success and accomplishment didn’t happen over night. If you do not have the career you have always dreamed of, do not worry, you can get there. Career development isn’t easy, but it is definitely worth it.

Career development can mean a lot of things. Here, for my purposes, I simply mean doing the things you have to do to get the career you really want. The first step in the process of career development is to figure out – really figure out – the career you want to have. This may be harder than it seems. You really need to know yourself, know what you’re good at, and know what excites you. Not many people last long in a career that they hate. Career development begins with taking a close look at yourself. See a career counselor for even more help or to take tests that will help you to determine your personality and jobs that will fit it well.

Once you have determined a career or two that seems like it will fit you and your dreams, continue with your career development by discovering what needs to happen for you to be qualified for the career you want. Career development does not happen in an instant or even in a year, it may take years of hard work to get to where you want to be. It is important to be realistic about your goals and about the process. Does more education need to take place for your career development? Or perhaps you just need some special training courses in your field but you do not need another degree? Find these things out and then begin pursuing it.

Career development is important because I am convinced that it is important that people spend their lives on things they care about and feel like they can do well at. There is nothing worse than spending years of your life in an unsatisfying career. Fortunately, you do not have to let that be the story of your life. Take proactive steps that put you in control of your career development.

I guess what I’m simply trying to say is this: life is hard. Work is hard. Work is much easier and life is much better when it is doing a career that you love. Believe that it is possible for you to have a career that you love and then commit to whatever career development is necessary for you. It will be worth it for years to come.