When Jane Karuschkat was recuperating from cancer, she longed for the routine and motivation her job provided. But one week after her first chemotherapy treatment, she was laid off.
“I thought I was being called to take dictation,” the former legal secretary recalled. Instead, Karuschkat - who missed five days of work after a mastectomy - said she was told: “I can’t afford to keep you anymore.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Karuschkat, 45. “The voice inside my head was screaming, ‘You can’t do that! You can’t do that!”’
But they do. Employees with cancer are fired or laid off five times as often as others, according to a survey issued Tuesday by Working Woman magazine and Amgen, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., company that makes drugs to lessen chemotherapy side effects.
And when cancer patients do keep their jobs, they are often stripped of important duties by supervisors who believe the treatment will slow the workers down.
One in 14 cancer survivors (7 percent) interviewed said they were fired or laid off because of their illness. Of all American workers, only one in 80 (1.3 percent) was fired or laid off in 1995, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The May telephone survey included interviews with 100 supervisors, 100 co-workers and 500 cancer survivors who worked while undergoing treatment.
Eighty-five percent of supervisors said they believe the cancer survivors who worked for them suffered fatigue while undergoing chemotherapy, but only 58 percent of the cancer patients actually did. Seventy-four percent of the supervisors also cited nausea, yet only 33 percent of the cancer patients had that side effect.
“Today a majority of patients are treated as outpatients and there are new medicines that dramatically reduce and often eliminate chemotherapy side effects like low blood counts, nausea,” said Dr. Ellen Gold, a hematologist-oncologist at Beth Israel Medical Center. “It seems (employers) just aren’t aware of that yet.”
Lani Stewart of Westminster, Colo., was laid off from her purchasing job three years after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Though the company told her she was being let go because of “necessary reductions in the work force,” Stewart, 42, is convinced the selfinsured company simply didn’t want to risk future medical bills. Others laid off included a woman whose husband had a brain tumor, a man with diabetes and two other breast cancer survivors.
Stewart’s lawsuit against her company is pending.
Karuschkat went to the state Human Rights Commission and won a $70,000 judgment against her boss for discrimination. The cancer has since reappeared in her hip bone after a second mastectomy.
Despite the illness, Karuschkat believes her work would not have suffered. The Long Island woman points to the lavish flower gardens she designed and nurtured, the vegetable garden bursting with mega-squashes, the basement lined with hand-painted oils - all done while undergoing chemotherapy.
“Having a job was an important motivation for getting up every morning,” said Karuschkat, who is bald because of the cancer treatments. “When I lost my job, it was like the rug was pulled out from under me.”