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Companies should strive to help cancer survivors continue contributing

One in 4 to 5 people in Singapore will likely be hit by cancer in their lifetime, with a rising number of survivors due to the Republic's ageing population, better treatments



WHEN 40-year-old Aileen Seah was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in late-2017, the first person that came to mind was her 13-year-old daughter.

"She was so young, all sorts of wild thoughts were running through my mind, for example, who was going to take care of her if I wasn't around?"

Similar thoughts were running through the mind of senior engineer at SI Group, Gary Yao, when he was diagnosed with Grade 2 Ependymoma.

"I experienced back pain and numbness in both legs. After seeing the oncologist, I was diagnosed with Grade 2 Ependymoma and another operation to remove the entire tumour had to be arranged."

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The 34-year-old added that the first thing he did when he got the bad news was to call his wife. "It was shocking but you have to acknowledge it after the doctor tells you it is a tumour."

The next issue that came to both Ms Seah's and Mr Yao's minds was their job prospects.

Said Ms Seah: "Will my company still keep me knowing that I have this disease, will I be treated differently, all my current projects will come to a standstill… These were some thoughts that came to mind."

Mr Yao concurred, saying: "It is an expensive disease. The operation costs about S$80,000 and about S$35,000 after subsidy and I did wonder about my prospects in the company." But he added that his company, an American firm, was compassionate towards his plight.

Employability and job prospects afflict not just cancer patients, but all those with chronic health issues.

Eileen Koh, who worked in the life sciences industry, was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a type of kidney disease, a few years back.

Ms Koh said that her illness may have affected her chances of getting employment.

"During the interviews, I was upfront with the interviewers about my condition, which they said was fine, but the recruitment agency did feedback their concern about it."

She added that it would be good to create awareness of this kind of condition along with other auto-immune conditions.

Showing compassion

Ms Koh said: "When employers know about it, what to expect, at least he/she will be less critical when thinking about hiring the person."

The Singapore Cancer Registry Annual Registry Report done in 2015 showed that 64,341 people were diagnosed with this ailment, and the figure does not take into consideration those with long-term debilitating illness.

Kiley Loh, consultant, division of medical oncology, and director of cancer education and information service, National Cancer Centre Singapore, said: "It is estimated that one in four to five people in Singapore will be hit by cancer in their lifetime. We also expect to see a rising number of cancer survivors due to our ageing population, as age is a major cancer risk factor, as well as improvements in screening and anti-cancer treatments."

Dr Loh added that although cancer remains a serious and highly lethal disease, it is no longer a uniform death sentence.

Carolina Edna Png, director of programmes & services, Singapore Cancer Society, said: "With more people surviving cancer, the focus has shifted towards helping survivors live with impairments arising from the disease and/or side effects of the treatment."

She added that employers can be more compassionate towards their employees battling the disease and special arrangements can be made to accommodate them so that they can still contribute meaningfully.

Dr Loh agreed and said: "Taking time off work is a necessity especially during the initial stage of diagnosis and treatments. Once patients discover how they cope during treatment, then only can they make work plans with the advice of the healthcare team. It is, however, encouraging that most cancer patients are able to return to work, although flexibility is needed from both patients and employers to find the best mutually beneficial working arrangement."

He added that the road to recovery also starts with employers providing patients with the psychological support and safety surrounding their work.

While Mr Yao's company has arranged the working hours and dates to suit his schedule, Ms Seah has, however, voiced her wish for more flexible arrangements with her firm.

Positive mindset

She mentioned that the company allowed her to fully claim her paid sick leave - as per MOM - but she still hoped that she would be allowed to work from home at least one day a week so that she could rest a bit more.

Ms Seah said: "I know my company is doing the best it can, as it is not a very big firm, but having more time to work from home allows me to recuperate a little more."

Ian Lim, partner at TSMP Law Corporation, said: "Illness in and of itself should not be grounds for termination of employment, unless the illness affects the employee's ability to do his or her job. An employee who is dismissed not because of poor performance but on account of illness alone may potentially have grounds for a wrongful dismissal claim, with the scope for such claims having expanded under the Employment Act amendments which came into force on Apr 1 this year."

Meanwhile, patients can also take proactive steps to still be contributing members of their companies.

Founding managing director and an executive coach of NeXT Career Consulting Group, Paul Heng, said: "There are two key things they (the patients) will want to focus on.  Keep as positive a mindset as possible. Be fiercely independent - much as you are going through challenges, behave as normal as possible - do not expect others to treat you any differently."

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