October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a Wage and Hour Investigator and breast cancer survivor, I know firsthand how the protections afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act are making an impact in the lives of workers and their families.
“They told you its cancer, right?” My eyes widened. “What? No…What,” I replied as I closed the little pink jacket I’d been given to wear for my procedure a bit more tightly. “Didn’t you meet with the surgeon,” my doctor asked. “Yes, but he told me that 80 percent of biopsies yield benign results. I don’t have any symptoms. I thought I’d be in the 80 percent.”
A month earlier, I went for a routine mammogram on my lunch break. Now, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the medical recommendation was a bi-lateral mastectomy to improve my chances of survival.
Cancer and I first became sparring partners when I was 25. My dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer and I was a primary caregiver until he succumbed to the disease eight years later. A short time after my father’s death, my mother was diagnosed with metastatic, invasive breast cancer; I became her primary caregiver, too. By the time I received my diagnosis, I had logged more than a few months in infusion centers and hospital waiting rooms. I had come to think of cancer as a chronic illness rather than a death sentence.
As a result of my experience, I had little fear of the disease. Though, I was not at all happy about the prospect of a bi-lateral mastectomy; I eventually came to terms with the notion after speaking with other breast cancer survivors. I felt strong. I was strong. That is, until my last day in the office before taking leave for the first of many surgeries and chemotherapy.
I felt a tightening in my throat as I closed the door behind me and walked to the elevator. While digging in my purse for my keys, my hands began to tremble. I was sobbing when I approached my car. It was neither the fear of cancer nor the mastectomy that hit me squarely in the stomach. It was the fear of dependency. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know how to be a “sick person” or a “cancer patient.” I sensed that my world was going to change dramatically. I would become dependent; my life would revolve around visits to the treatment center and doctors’ offices and testing labs. And for a time, I wouldn’t be able to drive, carry my groceries, change my bed linens, take yoga class or do my job. That terrified me. Helplessness terrified me.
I was a rookie Wage and Hour Division Investigator in 1997 when I first became familiar with the rights afforded under the FMLA. It was relatively new then. For most of my father’s fight with cancer, the FMLA did not exist. My mother, siblings, aunts, uncles and I pitched in to provide care and comfort over the course of his lengthy illness. On several occasions, my father went to appointments lasting as long as eight hours. That thought still haunts me.
The rights afforded under the FMLA help mitigate those fears. Beyond care and comfort, persons undergoing treatment often need transportation and assistance with the tasks of daily living. The FMLA allows family members to provide the kind of consistent care, that even my large, extended family could not always provide for my father. Like me, my father was not comfortable asking for help and he would never have allowed any of us to jeopardize our jobs for his sake.
Perhaps my experience with cancer is a reason I have always been particularly interested in the enforcement of the FMLA. I have been a caregiver and a patient, and I believe, wholeheartedly, that the rights afforded by the Act allow families to provide the critical care necessary for healing. I not only believe it, I know this from experience.
A person doesn’t recover from a serious illness in solitude. Recovery requires the support of a family and regular interaction with a community of health care providers. That’s why, I take pride in making sure eligible employees of covered employers have an opportunity to access the treatment and support available to them.
Editor’s Note: The author is an investigator in the Wage and Hour Division.