Breast imaging specialist Laura Liberman talks about her own experience as a cancer patient in her book, I Signed as the Doctor.
There are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the United States today, a number that is expected to grow as more people are diagnosed with and survive the disease. Nearly half of adult cancer survivors are younger than age 65, and represent a meaningful sector of the workforce.
Survivors who work at a cancer center may encounter unique circumstances during and after their cancer treatment – such as working directly with other people being treated for cancer – which can complicate their return to work. Some may even be researching the very diseases they are fighting themselves.
That's what Memorial Sloan Kettering breast radiologist Laura Liberman learned when she received a diagnosis of lymphoma in 2007. She underwent six months of chemotherapy followed by bimonthly maintenance therapy.
“Being on the other side of something you’re so familiar with is eye-opening,” says Dr. Liberman, Director of the Program for Women Faculty Affairs, who often found herself, out of habit, signing as the doctor on her own patient consent forms. “It gives you a different perspective and an appreciation of the challenges our patients encounter.”
Employee Survivorship Program
To address the needs of Dr. Liberman and other employees being treated for cancer, as well as those who have completed therapy, Memorial Sloan Kettering created the Employee Survivorship Program in the fall of 2011.
The program is a collaboration between our Employee Health and Wellness Services and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Survivorship Initiative. It brings together health and wellness services, support programs, medical services, and assistance on employment-related issues in one formal initiative dedicated to helping cancer survivors live their lives to the fullest.
“We want to make sure more of our employees who are cancer survivors can connect with these services.”
—Meghan Newcomer, Coordinator of the Survivorship Initiative
“With nearly half of cancer survivors being of working age and Memorial Sloan Kettering being a leader in cancer care, we thought this would be a great place to initiate a workplace support program,” explains Rebecca Guest, a physician in Employee Health and Wellness Services.
A survey conducted by the Employee Survivorship Program found that among 61 employees who had returned to work after being treated for cancer, 46 percent reported experiencing fatigue, 29 percent had physical difficulties, 22 percent said they felt emotional strain, and 20 percent had pain. Other challenges included having problems with memory, attending to personal needs, and finding emotional support. Fifty-nine percent of respondents indicated that better workplace accommodations would have made their return easier.
The survey results informed the design of the new program. “Fortunately, services to address many of the needs that the survivors identified in the survey already existed, such as our Resources for Life After Cancer Program,” says Meghan Newcomer, coordinator of the Survivorship Initiative. “Now we want to make sure more of our employees who are cancer survivors can connect with these services.”
The program’s goals are to build awareness of the services and programs available to employees who are cancer survivors, to offer emotional support for staff members who have completed cancer treatment, to increase access to wellness services, and to optimize the assistance for employees to arrange medical leave and return to work after treatment.
Returning to work after treatment
Denise Bing, research study assistant in the Department of Urology and cancer survivor
Denise Bing, a research study assistant in the Department of Urology, was out of work from the end of October 2009 until mid-April 2010 while she received treatment for early-stage ovarian cancer. “I admit I was apprehensive about going back to work, seeing that there were a lot of changes made during my absence,” she recalls. “I was wondering how I would fit in when I returned. But my fears were put to rest when I received a warm greeting from my coworkers, and I was given some light duties to start.”
She joined Memorial Sloan Kettering’s gynecologic cancer survivorship group and recently joined the Common Ground support group. “Both groups are supportive and encouraging,” says Ms. Bing. “Not only do I feel encouraged, but I find that I encourage others, and also receive helpful advice on how to cope with certain issues.”
Dr. Liberman found that her biggest challenges surfaced after treatment was completed. “You hope and expect you'll be back to normal, and it takes time to find your 'new normal,'” she explains. “Post-treatment was the hardest time for me, and that's when the resources for survivors were most helpful. I also received an incredible amount of support from my coworkers; people were there for me in ways I could not imagine.”