Real Women: 'I Kept Working While I Had Cancer'

Work doesn't stop when cancer treatments start. Here's how three real women balance their careers with their cancer treatments.

Maggie Heim, 58, Ovarian Cancer

The first time Maggie Heim underwent chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, working through the treatment was unfathomable. Not only was she dealing with chemotherapy’s nausea and exhaustion, she also had to recover from surgery to remove the tumor. She took advantage of her company’s disability leave, went into remission, and within six months was back to work.

But the cancer wasn’t done with her yet. A year later, the malignancy returned. A different course of chemotherapy was selected. Unlike the first chemo, she wouldn’t have to be hospitalized, she wouldn’t lose her hair and the nausea wouldn’t be as bad. “My doctor told me I wouldn’t be disabled,” says Heim, a senior lawyer at a motion picture studio. “So I had to work. I had to juggle the problems.”

Step one in that act was being upfront with her boss, her coworkers and human resources about the treatment and its side effects. “I told my boss I could work but I would need flexibility,” says Heim. For her, that meant scheduling chemo for Fridays so that she’d be most sick over the weekend and telecommuting on the following Monday and Tuesday when she knew her energy level would still be low. When she did go into the office, she took midday, boss-approved naps on the couch in her office. “It gave me the energy boost I needed to get through the day,” Heim says.

Being upfront with coworkers about the effects of treatment was also crucial to Heim’s success on the job. With the okay from her human resources department, Heim asked that all coworkers in her building stop wearing perfume or cologne while she was undergoing chemotherapy. “The smell would make me very nauseous,” says Heim. “I talked to everyone individually and everyone agreed.”

Sharing such a personal experience with coworkers can be daunting, Heim admits, but doing so helps all of you. “I personally feel you should disclose as much as you feel comfortable disclosing with an eye toward helping employees handle your absence or your inability to be there 100 percent,” says Heim. “You have to accept that and get them to accept it.”

And, if you find juggling cancer and work to be too much, stop if you are able. Take advantage of your company’s sick leave and disability benefits. “You have to take care of your body as well as your employer,” says Heim.

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