‘Breast Cancer Patients Can Live, Don’t Fire Them’

By Vinodh Pillai | 23 December 2019

Advocate Ranjit Kaur says employers of people living with breast cancer are unnecessarily worrying about their staff dying.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 23 — A breast cancer advocate told companies not to simply terminate staff who are fighting the disease, saying these women can actually survive and continue working.

Breast Cancer Welfare Association president Ranjit Kaur said most employers are ignorant about breast cancer and mistakenly believe that those who have been diagnosed with it will succumb to the disease.

“And they don’t want that,” she told a CEO Roundtable on Cancer in Malaysia at the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce last month. “Because they’re ‘progressive’ and business- and profit-making.”

“(But) they have no idea that this person actually can survive and carry on (working as they did before).”

Ranjit said education is key to changing this narrative — and that’s exactly what her non-government organisation (NGO) is doing today.

“Employers need to be educated,” Ranjit said. “When (the employee) is diagnosed and she tells us that the boss has spoken to her, (told her) some ‘mumbo jumbo’, and said, ‘You’d better resign’…we negotiate with the employers.

“We tell them that this person is going to go through a phase of treatment, (that) there’ll be days when she’ll come in to work, and there will (be) days when she will not be well.

“We also give examples of ourselves who have been working before and who had gone through treatment, still performed, and continue to perform after treatment is over,” she added.

But while bigger companies are more open to changing their ways, it’s the smaller companies that find it difficult to continue running their businesses when their staff need to take time off, which Ranjit is finding challenging to solve.

“(Take, for example) one mechanic shop, and… the lady is a clerk there (and) she’s the only one who works in that place. If she’s not there, work is not done.”

However, some cases have been easily resolved, including in the public sector, with employees living with breast cancer managing to keep their job even while in remission.

Some time back, Ranjit recalled, one breast cancer patient, a newsreader on a local television station, was told by her bosses to leave her position as she was going through chemotherapy and was balding.

“They didn’t want a bald person sitting at the table (reading the news on air),” she explained.

“So we came to an agreement (where) she said, ‘I will wear a wig’. They said, ‘Okay, if she’s going to wear a wig, it’s fine’.

“Some negotiation sometimes needs to be done, and we are doing that for all those women who need this kind of support.”

Apart from this, she said survivors also need to be educated about the need to speak up for themselves and tell their employers that they can do their work — even while battling cancer.

“But the problem is they’re vulnerable when they are in the early (stages of cancer).

“When they’re diagnosed and go through treatment, that’s a very vulnerable period and that’s when they think that, ‘Yes, I should stop work’, and that’s when they give in, they resign and then, they’re lost; they’ve got no job, no income, they can’t get treatment. Everything sort of ripples into the whole gamut of problems.

“So, I think, educating employers…and what we are trying to do in negotiating with employers, helps a great deal,” Ranjit said.

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