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Returning to Work Proves Challenging for Cancer Patients


Cancer is a universal disease, affecting many people personally or someone they know. Caught early, patients can live productive lives. A study underway at Ohio State University is following patients with leukemia or lymphoma to see how soon they go back to work after chemotherapy. VOA's Melinda Smith has the story of some breast cancer survivors who have returned to the workplace.

It is estimated that women who undergo breast cancer surgery in the U.S. stay out of work for as long as six weeks during treatment.

Yet Cara Stein kept on working through 16 weeks of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation. She says her co-workers made the adjustment as her physical appearance changed. "...Once they got over that initial shock of seeing me bald. It sort of put us all at ease. It was kind of just 'out there.' [highly visible]. This is what's going on with me."

Wendy Skinner says going back to work proved to be a positive distraction. "The one thing I did not want to do was to be at home thinking about the situation I was in. I wanted to keep my mind alert. I wanted to keep myself active."

Still, patients, like Betty Scull, say just showing up every day called for determination.

"You don't have your full strength,” says Scull. “You're under medication, this kind of thing. So you feel a little bit vulnerable."

Wendy Skinner and Cara Stein say a large part of healing came from the moral support given by co-workers.

"They jumped in when there was an emotional day,” recalled Skinner. “They were there to have my back [to help]. It made this whole time period a lot quicker. A lot better."

Stein says, "It definitely helped my recovery. I didn't feel like my life was disrupted or traumatized. I just kept moving forward. And I think that's the direction I always want to go in."

Sixty percent of cancer patients in one study say they continued to work while undergoing treatment. After one year, a majority of those who stopped working during treatment returned to their jobs. Researchers say workers may not have a choice because they need the health insurance and steady income.

Another factor is the policy set by employers. In the United States and some other countries, discrimination in the workplace -- against employees undergoing medical treatment -- is considered illegal.

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