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Articles & Information

Working It Out

Topic: Career & Finance

by Briony Smith | photographer Donna Griffith

Mavis Fraser, left and Katie Evans

Cancer means facing a lot of tough choices, and for many that includes, “What will I do about my job?” The decision to work through treatment or take time off is up to every individual. But there are general guidelines that can be helpful when figuring out how to discuss it with your employer, and what follows after that.

We spoke with two women—one who worked through treatment and one who took time off—about the ups and downs of their experiences, plus a Human Resources expert who breaks it all down for when the time comes to weigh your options.


It all happened so fast. Now 27, Katie Evans (pictured, right) was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 11, 2011, and had a mastectomy on her right side 17 days later. Evans, a Shoppers Drug Mart store administrator, says that her employers were very understanding: “They were so good to me. They told me to take as long as I needed.” Evans’ oncologist recommended taking a minimum of six weeks off post-surgery as part of a yearlong recovery process. With the support of her employer, Evans went on long-term disability so she could focus on healing.

Evans struggled for a while with the feeling of being a burden on society, her family and friends. “It was very inconvenient—since I worked at several stores, I had to have three different people cover me,” she says. “I felt guilty about that, like I wasn’t an active participant in society.”

Evans triumphed over these challenges, and those of chemo, by volunteering for breast cancer charities, such as Rethink Breast Cancer and the Canadian Cancer Society. “It really offers that sense of camaraderie,” she says. “You don’t have to explain yourself.” She has also found solace in writing blog posts for facingcancer.ca and working on a book about her experiences.

Evans has since returned to work. “I went back as soon as my oncologist and insurance cleared me,” she says. “I don’t want to be the ‘cancer girl’ anymore. I don’t want people to forget, but I don’t want to be defined by it, either. I’m still the same person; I just had cancer.”


Mavis Fraser (pictured, left) is one busy lady. That’s why the 56-year-old Coty Prestige marketing director wanted to keep life “as normal as possible.” She only spoke to her employer after she knew exactly what her path of treatment was going to be and that she would work throughout it. “We decided we wanted to play it by ear,” she says. “We worked it like a jigsaw puzzle, moving all the pieces around.” Over the course of 2011, Fraser had two lumpectomies, a course of chemo and radiation, all without missing much work. “It never occurred to me that [staying at work] would be an option,” she says. “I found it to be a great distraction. It was good to keep my mind busy and have other things to think about, and to be around other people.”

Fraser scheduled her chemo for Thursdays so she would be at home over the weekend when the worst of the side effects hit. Living 10 minutes from work helped, as did flexible Fridays in the summer and taking vacation days when chemo became more difficult. She also stayed away from group meetings to keep her immune system safe.

By the end of treatment, Fraser was excited to resume her normal routine. “I never felt pressured to come into work,” she says. “Rather than become a different person altogether, I preferred to just carry on.”


Wellspring offers a program called Money Matters, in which expert case managers assist you with income replacement and drug compensation options. The network also has a program called Cancer in the Workplace, to help you get back to work post-treatment. Learn more at wellspring.ca.


“There are no right or wrong answers,” says Holly Bradley, the managing director of national cancer support network Wellspring. “There are no standards, only guidelines. Everything is individually determined.” Here are some of her tips to get you started:

- You don’t have to disclose the exact nature of your illness if you don’t want to. What you will have to share is your expected duration of time off work, projected return date and what changes you might need when you return.

- Check your benefits booklet to determine the time off you’re entitled to under short- or long-term disability, and aftercare such as physiotherapy. To apply for benefits, you will need to provide your insurance company with a medical certificate stating your case.

- If you need time off, apply to Service Canada for Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits; if you’re eligible, they will last for up to 15 weeks. You may also be entitled to receive additional benefits on a provincial level; the amount varies from province to province.

- Legislation and employment standards also vary from province to province. So when it’s time to head back to work, chat with your HR department about your rights and what to expect.

- If your employer doesn’t have a comprehensive benefits program or an HR department willing to discuss your rights with you, consider hiring an independent employment lawyer if you have concerns.

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