No sympathy for cancer survivor

When Jane Smith (not her real name) was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have her left breast removed last May, the last thing she was thinking about was her Centrelink Newstart payments.

But as the months wore on Jane found she could think of little else as Centrelink continued to hound her to apply for work, with bureaucrats deciding she was fit to work 15 to 22 hours per week. Yet Jane said she had already given up her part-time job as a disability worker and left her TAFE course as she struggled to cope with the physical and emotional effects of her illness.

Then, the day before she started chemotherapy, Centrelink cut off her Newstart allowance.

“I was absolutely furious. I went to the Ballina office and hit the roof,” Jane said. “With cancer you can really fall through the cracks because there’s no specific category for cancer patients. Everyone’s illness and treatment is different yet my personal circumstances weren’t taken into account at all.

“The treatment is gruelling and you’re dealing with the loss and grief of losing a breast and other losses involved with the diagnosis of cancer… but it got treated as a minor inconvenience rather than a huge life upheaval.

“I was numb and in shock – it was all happening so fast and I was facing a lot of uncertainty. There was a real sense of panic and disbelief and you can’t be out looking for work in that frame of mind.”

Jane had already produced a treatment plan that showed she would be undergoing 10 months of cancer treatment, including six weeks of radiation therapy interstate, and she managed to get her payments reinstated. However, Centrelink still considered her able to work eight hours a week.

While Centrelink would not comment on Jane’s specific case, a spokesperson said they rely on medical evidence from a person’s doctor to assess a person’s capacity to work.

“There’s just no acknowledgement of the shock and emotional impact of cancer and the huge adjustments you have to make in your life,” Jane said. “They knew I had 10 months of active treatment, so you would think I would be exempt from looking for work for at least 15 months.

“Most people who have had cancer want to go back to work, you crave that normality, but it also takes time to reorientate yourself after treatment. You need time to regain your confidence and identity before you can join the workforce again.

“I had nerve damage to my hands and feet so I couldn’t walk without pain, I had intense hot flushes and I looked sick – I had no hair or eyebrows. How do they expect a person that looks and feels that terrible to look for work?”

Jane said she also had to answer a multitude of letters and attend numerous appointments because paperwork including medical certificates was misplaced.

While she recognises it may have been a simple mistake by Centrelink, for Jane it added to her trauma.

“I was just about tearing my hair out with frustration. There was a communication breakdown between Centrelink and Job Services Australia so they weren’t getting my medical certificates,” Jane said. “I was getting letter after letter. It was ridiculous – I’m in the middle of chemotherapy and I’m having to respond to all these letters and send in certificates and I just felt like I had to cop it because I didn’t have any energy and I just wasn’t capable of getting out there to advocate for myself. The staff at Centrelink were actually very helpful and supportive, it’s just the system that’s the problem.”

Jane believes Centrelink should have a category specifically for people with cancer that’s equivalent to that of the Disability Support Pension.

Centrelink informed The Echo that as of March 6 this year jobseekers suffering from and undergoing treatment for serious illnesses may be eligible for a longer period of exemption from their participation requirements.

The change enables Centrelink to grant exemptions for periods of up to 12 months without requiring the jobseeker to lodge medical certificates every 13 weeks, or go through additional job capacity assessments.

While Jane was certainly pleased to hear that news, she still felt cancer patients needed to be assessed on a case-by-case basis given how individual every journey was.

“Ironically, I feel angrier and sadder about it all now than I did then,” Jane said. “I was told that often, because you’re in trauma, it’s not until you finish treatment that everything hits you. What I went through with Centrelink just made it so much harder to cope.

“I felt I needed to say something and to speak out, partly just for my own healing. The system as it stands is inhumane and I believe there needs to be far more accountability in the way Centrelink treats people at their most vulnerable.”

Jane is interested in talking with other people with cancer who have had similar experiences. Anyone interested can contact Jane via The Echo.

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