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Discrimination Against Breast Cancer Survivors

By May 16, 2011

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In Durham, North Carolina, Alaina Giordano a young mother of two, with Stage 4 breast cancer, has been told to give up her children to her ex-husband. Her health and finances were cited as one reason for the judge's decision.

On the coast in Seattle, Korean Airlines turned away Mimi Kim, a metastatic breast cancer patient, who only wanted to return to her birthplace to spend her final months among family. Mrs. Kim looked too frail to survive the flight, according to Korean Air.  Delta Airlines looked over her doctor's note and upgraded Mrs. Kim to first class and flew her home.

Ruth Ann Swenson, a soprano formerly with the Metropolitan Opera, was passed over for leading roles after her early-stage breast cancer diagnosis.  When she recovered her stamina, Ms. Swenson toured Europe and America, showing no loss of quality in her voice.

In the windy city of Chicago, Mary Ellen Hintz went to renew her apartment lease and was told by her landlord that because she has terminal breast cancer, she may have a lease agreement for only one month at a time.  Ms. Hintz's landlord said he thought her treatments caused such severe chemobrain that she might not be lucid enough to sign contracts or pay her bills.

Sometimes, when discrimination looks like it's really about money, it may be primarily about fear.  Modern society doesn't have good ways of dealing with Cancerophobia.  Even with cancer rates as high as they are, sometimes it seems like the average person doesn't know how to react or support a friend or coworker or even a spouse recently diagnosed with breast cancer.  Some women feel shunned by their friends, as if they've suddenly become contagious, or done something immoral that resulted in cancer.

I think it comes down to the ultimate:  fear of death.  Despite decades of awareness-raising, patient education, improved treatments, and higher survival rates, there seems to be this persistent perception that a breast cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence.  And that may be linked to the misconception that all breast cancers are alike (they aren't) and all treatments are severe and disabling (it varies).

We as educated patients and breast cancer survivors have to face our prognosis daily.  We deal with our fears, our possible outcomes, our side effects, finances, and relationships every day.  Landlords, airline agents, divorce lawyers, and opera managers seem to have other priorities.  Breast cancer survivors - no matter what stage they have - should not have to fight for rights and privileges that are freely given to people who appear healthier.  We should not have to lawyer up and battle back against uneducated cancerphobes.

So be sure to know your rights as a person and as an empowered cancer patient and survivor.  You can't be fired for having breast cancer. If you have health insurance, you don't have to lose it; and you can apply for assistance.  If you're going to travel during treatment, prepare notes from your doctor and bring those along.  Mimi Kim knew what she wanted - and she knew it was within her reach.  Cancer wasn't going to reduce her to less than a full person, denied the civility and respect that should be routine.  Mrs. Kim went home first class, and was greeted with cheers.  Now that's my idea of respect and proper treatment!

Have you ever been discriminated against because of breast cancer? Please leave a comment below.

May 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm
(1) Deborah Weaver says:

After being treated for Stage IIB breast cancer, I was too week to return to work at the end of my FMLA. The SVP of HR, who was my peer, sent me a letter of termination, WITHOUT the President’s knowledge.

He offered me my job back, but refused to fire the other SVP for her unethical behavior, which clearly violated our values statement. Fortunately, my long-term disability came through and I did not have to make a decision.

When my long-term disability ended, I applied for unemployment. The same SVP contested my claim, saying I had left voluntarily three months BEFORE she terminated me (I was on FMLA the entire time). It took me three months to get an appeals hearing, which I won. During those three months I had ZERO income.

I can’t prove this happened because of my breast cancer, but I know this woman strongly disliked me and that she at least used the breast cancer as an excuse to get rid of me. This credit union, where I was employed, held my mortgage, my two auto loans, a credit card, and a line of credit. They gave me a ONE-MONTH extension and then stopped returning my phone calls. Because they would not work with me, they were left holding the bag on all but one car loan when I declared bankruptcy.

Two and a half years later, I still have moments of anger that my employer would take so much advantage of my illness. The SVP of HR still works there, too. I helped this credit union win a quality award. In the award application, we stated that we fired people for violating our corporate values. OBVIOUSLY NOT!

May 21, 2011 at 7:50 am
(2) Lesley says:

I cannot get residence permit in the country of my choice since arriving here. I discovered stage IIb breast cancer shortly after our applications were accepted and had to remove my name from our joint application so that my hubby could get his residency. I am not permitted to reapply until I have been cerified “cancer free” for five years dated from the completion of my treatment

May 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm
(3) Angel Ryan says:

I had finished chemo and was starting radiation, I decided i wanted to get my eybrows waxed. when I went
into the salon the woman said to me she couldnt do them because She felt i couldnt walk down the stairs
I asked her who she was to decide If i could walk down stairs or not, I was very enbarissed and was shocked, as I felt I looked pretty good that day
But she saw my bald head, I had a hat on and made a decision not to wait on me
The woman whose nails she was doing looked shocked
This bothered me for a long time

June 1, 2011 at 7:09 pm
(4) Breast Exam says:

I asked her who she was to decide If i could walk down stairs or not, I was very enbarissed and was shocked

October 4, 2011 at 8:54 am
(5) Michele says:

I worked as much as possible at my state government job during my chemotherapy and radiation treatments, taking FMLA only as needed to recover. Once I returned to full time work, a new supervisor start criticizing my work performance to the point where I finally quit. My previous performance evaluations (under a different supervisor) were fine, and there were no complaints with my work. EEOC did not protect me in spite of the evidence. Should I have ‘lawyered up’?
What do you think my chances of being hired again in my career field are with the current employment atmosphere? In ANY career field for that matter?

October 17, 2012 at 9:13 am
(6) Laura says:

I am breast cancer free for 6 years but the insurance will not pay for my yearly routine mammograms becuase I have a history of breast cancer and need extra films supposedly. Does this never end? I feel like a victim and I know this is minor but it still feels the same.

December 14, 2012 at 11:36 am
(7) Victoria Little says:

Yes, I am being discriminated against in postsecondary education and need some guidance and help please

May 3, 2013 at 7:18 am
(8) vkosgeg says:

Awesome website you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics discussed here? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get feedback from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thanks!

May 17, 2013 at 11:15 am
(9) Cheryl says:

Worked at a school system for 10 years and received one of the best and higest paid positions that I have ever gotten prior to my stage III diagnosis. I had to resign from my position due chemo and radiation treatment. The following school year I applied for the position that same position which remained unfilled for six months. It is now three years later and although I sub for the same school system, I have been on six different interviews and have been passed up for all of them. I was told by a reliable source , who recommended me for a up and coming position, that the school systems central office has told the administrator that I’m not rehireable.

June 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm
(10) Cindy Wedge says:

My name is Cindy Wedge I am 46 years old and recently diagnosed with breast cancer, When I informed my landlord about having cancer He immediately responded by saying I’m sorry about your diagnosis but I am running a business here!! So thinking money was the way to stay in the house I went through a rental assistance organization called care to share.. My landlord was appalled at The thought of receiving monies from an organization For me to pay my rent! So he denied it and me and wants me to be out by June 10 and my bilateral mastectomy is scheduled for July 1st!! I’m too sick and weak to pack all of my belongings And deciding which part of my life I should sell so that I have money to move, How could somebody be so mean to discriminate against someone who has cancer???

June 6, 2013 at 5:48 pm
(11) Sandy says:

I had breast cancer two years ago this past May. I was blessed as it was found early and I needed a lumptomy and 7 weeks of radiation treatment. Right before I found out I had breast cancer I took a job in the same company I worked for doing the same job but a different department. You would think that would be a good thing. Only missed 1 wk for surgeon and 1 day because I was so tired from the radiation. Well it was decided by a female manager that I was unable to do my job but I was capable of carrying large 4 inch binders and standing on my feet to copy and scan these items. I have fought this within the company and have gone to the EEOC which is back logged and still waiting on that. But after a year and a half enough is enough – I intend to fight this and I intend to sue the company for what they did. I live in VA and need a lawyer so I can proceed, so if anyone knows an organization or lawyer in northern VA please post it. This should not be done to anyone and I’ve been under more stress with the job issue than the cancer. Fight for what you believe in – don’t let them walk all over you.

October 3, 2013 at 11:42 am
(12) cancer's kid says:

My mother had breast cancer in 1970. Nobody talked about it then. Insurance didn’t cover reconstruction, or prosthetic bras.

Mom got out of the hospital and felt well enough to go to church. Her dress didn’t fit quite right, since both breasts were gone, and she couldn’t afford a bra with mastectomy pads. She thought it would be okay, though. One of the deacons approached her after the service and told her not to come back to church until she could wear a bra. THIS WOMAN HAD NO BREASTS!

People never asked us kids how we felt, or if we needed to talk. They all wagged their fingers in our faces and told us “you know you need to be ‘extra good’ for your mom now.” Please, if you ever hear someone say this to a cancer patient’s kids, shut it down immediately.

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