Cancer Survivors: Diagnosis often ends career

VIDEO: Cancer Survivors: Diagnosis often ends career

Battling cancer is often a fight to survive.

However, in addition to ending lives -- cancer can also end careers.

Kastle Huffaker told KIRO 7 she was hired in 2014 by Scholten's Equipment Inc. in Lynden to be a receptionist and web manager.

Content Continues Below

“I actually really enjoyed working there,” she said.

After three years on the job, Huffaker was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She said her boss and owner of the company, Duane Scholten, was very accommodating at first.

“He said, word for word, ‘Take off all the time you need’” Huffaker recalled.

In a recent interview with KIRO 7, Huffaker acknowledged she missed work for appointments and chemotherapy, and was only able to put in 10-to-15 hours a week on the job.

But according to the Mount Vernon woman, her illness did not impact productivity, thanks to co-workers.

Scroll down to continue reading

More news from KIRO 7

“The work was getting done,” Huffaker said.

Huffaker is now suing Scholten’s Equipment, Inc. in federal court because, her lawsuit alleges, Scholten told her "she was 'milking' the time she was taking off for chemotherapy."

Scholten also allegedly "criticized" Huffaker "for her hair loss" -- "telling her that she was purposely trying to draw attention to herself by not wearing a wig or hat,” and that "her bald head would make" employees and customers "uncomfortable."

Scholten and his lawyer, John Silk of Wilson Smith Cochran Dickerson in Seattle, did not respond to KIRO 7’s requests for on-camera interviews or comment.

However, in the Defendants’ Answer to Complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Scholten denies that he ever discriminated against Huffaker and maintains his company took reasonable steps to accommodate her illness.

The documents filed on behalf of Scholten's Equipment Inc also ask for the case to be dismissed.
Meanwhile, Huffaker said Scholten fired her three months after she filed a claim with the company's human resources department.

“I honestly think it was because of my cancer,” she told KIRO 7.

So does her attorney, Elizabeth Hanley of Reed Longyear Malnati & Ahrens, PLLC in Seattle.  Hanley said, because her client asked human resources for help, Huffaker’s job should have been protected under state and federal law.

“If you exercise this right to request accommodation, you cannot be fired,” according to Hanley.

Hanley -- whose legal practice focuses on employment and civil rights cases – believes workplace discrimination after a cancer diagnosis is “very common, but there’s a stigma in that people don’t talk about it,” she said.

In addition to Huffaker, KIRO 7 also interviewed four other cancer survivors and caregivers who believe illness discrimination is real.

After 15 years as Finance Director for Mercedes-Benz of Seattle, Troy Coachman was unexpectedly fired “because I have a stoma and I speak with a voice prosthetic,” Coachman told KIRO 7.

Coachman said he was never specifically told his cancer was the reason for his termination, but the company’s then-owner “mentioned it several times at meetings with other managers.”

Coachman sued Seattle Auto Management Inc, Mercedes-Benz of Seattle -- the former owner of the dealership.

After a jury trial, Coachman prevailed and was awarded a more than $5 million settlement last fall.

That verdict is being appealed and a decision is expected later this year.

Meanwhile, Coachman said, “I never did it for the money.  I did it for what he did to me and what employers do to people who have a disability, or who are different.”

Steve Froisland said he was laid off after a 14-year tech career.  “I think cancer held me back,” Froisland told KIRO 7.

The Seattle man was in and out of the hospital for two years, battling bone cancer while trying to maintain his career.

Froisland blames cancer for his current unemployment, but he does not blame the company for laying him off.

“When your medical bills reach almost a million dollars and you only have to pay a small portion of that, I have the company to thank for that. They saved my life.”

Since his cancer battle began, Froisland has been diagnosed with PTSD and now has a service dog to help with anxiety.  His job hunt has so far has been unsuccessful and Froisland is afraid his cancer history will impact any job prospects.

“I’m always afraid of that,” Froisland said. He believes companies may think he is too expensive to insure, and won’t hire him. “From a business perspective, if that was the reason, I could understand why. Does it make it right? No.”

Christina Childs shares the same fear.  “I’m afraid that an employer will discriminate against me because of my cancer,” she said.

The Seattle woman not only knows how those with cancer can be treated.  She also believes caregivers often suffer discrimination.

As a tech company Vice President, Childs said she was told by her then-boss to choose between caring for her dying sister or her career.

“I took up sick days, I took up vacation days, I notified HR (human resources) that this was happening,” Childs recalled.

“They sat me down and said, ‘You can hit your numbers or you can go.’ So I left.”

Shortly after leaving her job, Childs was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She is now healthy, looking for work and afraid a potential employer is “going to find out that I’ve had cancer, and that I’m a liability.”

Kelly Mudaliar’s 12-year accounting career ended when her 36-year old husband Parmesh was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

The Lynnwood woman told KIRO 7 that she repeatedly asked her employer if she could temporarily step away from her management position to accompany her husband to his cancer treatments.

“It was important to me to not leave my work team hanging, or the company,” Mudaliar said.

However, after six months of making the same request, Mudaliar said no accommodations were made so she quit her job to care for her husband, who died at the age of 39.

“You’re choosing between the company -- and to toe the line – or your family.  And that’s a difficult place to be” she said. When someone is battling cancer, “whether they’re the person with cancer or whether they’re close to that person, a caregiver, a family member or friend, it’s really hard for somebody who hasn’t experienced that to understand the magnitude of what that is,” Mudaliar explained.

“It is life altering on every level.”

According to Elisabeth Clymer, cancer is often a taboo subject on the job.  “Everybody is afraid to mention it,” she said.

Clymer, who heads a program called "When Cancer Comes to Work" at Cancer Pathways in Seattle, revealed just how common cancer in the workplace is. She told KIRO 7 that one in every three people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, that 50% of cancer survivors are of working age and that 80% of those survivors will eventually return to work.

However, despite the prevalence of cancer, many people are too fearful to tell anyone in the workplace about a diagnosis. “We hear, ‘If I tell my boss, they’re going to think I’m not capable.  I’m going to have to leave to get treatment,’” Clymer said.

“You need the support of your company, you need the support of your colleagues.  When cancer comes to work, everybody is effected” Clymer said.

When cancer came to KIRO 7 in 2009, Michelle Millman was a 15-year veteran reporter and anchor.

“Shaved my head, lost my eyelashes, lost my eyebrows” Millman said recently. “Those changes were very difficult, being that I worked for decades in a visual medium."

Millman was able to take a six-month leave of absence to recover from surgery and chemotherapy.
On her first day back to work, she started radiation treatments. Within days, she was back on TV while still bald from chemotherapy.

“Had my scarf on and just barreled through it,” Millman remembered of that day in March 2010.

Millman also wanted to return to the anchor desk but said the news director at the time expressed concern about her very, very short post-chemo hair.

“He said, ‘What would you think about wearing a wig?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to wear a wig. This is who I am, this is what’s going on, and I’m not a wig gal.’”

A few weeks later, the boss gave his blessing and Millman returned to the KIRO 7 anchor desk to work her Saturday morning shift with very, very short hair. She is still thankful she had that opportunity.

“For him to do that, the news director of a television station, was pretty great. And boy, did I hear from viewers” who “emailed about what it meant for them to see someone look like I did and I was on TV. So it gave a lot of encouragement to cancer patients and their families,” Millman recalled.

Now nearly 10 years after her diagnosis, Millman believes workplace support helped strengthen her during the fight for her life, and she's thankful she could share that battle with the public.

“It’s so disheartening how some people are treated” post-diagnosis, she said. “If I had been treated that way, I don’t know what would have happened, where I would be,” Millman said.

“I just wanted to be who I was.”

Resources from Cancer Pathways: 

Click here for information from Cancer Mythbusters on myths, truths and takeaways. 

Click here for cancer communication tips.

Click here for program offerings.

Click here for more resources.