Managing Chronic Illness and a Career

Chronic illness can be a job of its own, but doesn’t mean you have to give up your dream job. Learn to dream uniquely, and thrive.

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by AdobeStock/Damir Khabirov

Managing a Career and Employment

The first step is to think long and hard about what kind of employment best suits your abilities. By the age of sixteen, few people realize that they’ll probably never be able to work a nine-to-five job. The normal course of employment just isn’t an option for patients with life-limiting illnesses. Setting realistic goals for their careers is something that needs to be taken on with out-of-the-box thinking. The good news is that technology has moved us into an age where your desk doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same building as your co-workers to do your job. Building the necessary skill set to be a work-from-home employee, consultant, or self-employed professional is possible. There are also many adjustments for disabilities that can be negotiated in standard workplaces. In this section, we’ll cover some of the ways you can secure the best accommodations for your needs at your workplace.

Expectations about Your Career

Is a person with rheumatoid arthritis going to be a massage therapist? Is a patient with ulcerative colitis going to have a stupendous career as a food reviewer? What about someone with chronic fatigue–do you think they’d be a quick hire as a physical education teacher? I’m not writing this to slay your spirit or crush your dream, but you’re in for a rude awakening if you expect to go forth into the night with your spandex and your cape jumping from one fire escape to another with inflamed tendons. It’s important for your physical and emotional well-being to test your limits regarding what kind of job you can handle. Want to be a cop? Do a ride-along for a few days to see if you can handle the pace. Want to be a teacher? Assist in the classroom for a few weeks to see if the responsibility of managing students is too much for you. Want to be a food reviewer? Ask for the chef’s specialty without asking if it has wheat, dairy, or shellfish in it.

For patients who discover their diagnosis earlier on in life, there’s a great chance they’ll be able to avoid massive disappointment and turmoil by translating their career goals into something achievable. But what if your disease hits you in the middle of med school or just as you got that promotion you’ve been shooting for all year? Some think of it the way a cancer patient chooses to shave their head before chemo. They know now that something is happening and that to live and have a less painful life, they need to have this therapy. This therapy will cause them to lose all their hair. It’s either going to happen the easy (and potentially less terrifying) way, or they’re going to watch clumps of their hair fall out in the shower every night until they’re bald.

woman in plaid shirt sitting at a computer desk with her hand on the mouse

In your situation, you can choose to fight against the tides of your disease and drag yourself through your workday with all the stress and anxiety it will cause, or you can choose to accept a change in pace and profession and move on. It may not seem like you’re making a career choice when it comes to chronic illness and employment, but you are. Neither of these choices is wrong and not everyone with a chronic illness chooses to give up their day job, even if it means spending ten hours a day on their feet. Some patients’ illnesses can be managed to the point where they can live a completely normal life. But most patients’ lives revolve around flare-ups and remission.

You may begin to ask yourself: When will a flare-up strike next? What will I do if I can’t call in sick? What happens to my insurance if I’m fired? Will my job really take me back when I’m well again? Having a disease doesn’t mean lowering your expectations about your career, but instead expecting a different skillset from yourself. People with chronic illness contribute to the well-being of the world every day. They help people, employ people, and even run businesses from their hospital beds. There are so many jobs that can be done from the relative comfort of your own bedroom.

The following are some examples of jobs you can do online:

  • Marketing, Promotions, and Advertising – Are you a creative type? There are many opportunities to be part of a company’s wing of marketing from your home base. Many employees teleconference into team meetings, and send material back and forth over email.
  • Creative Writing and Copy Writing – If you’ve got a knack for the written word, you may be able to land a gig as a copywriter. Copywriters come in all shapes and sizes. You could find yourself writing content for anything from the back of shampoo bottles to paid posts on different lifestyle websites.
  • Video Editing and Graphic Design – Do you have skills in this technical field? With the right software on your computer to do editing and design, most of these positions are done as a free-lancer or from home.
  • Appointment Setting and Virtual Personal Assistant – There is a whole world out there of employees and contractors who work from home. Consider teaming up with one of these experienced workers and acting as their virtual secretary.
  • Social Media Management and Community Liaison – With the rise of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn, many companies hire one person devoted to interacting with their audience, answering questions, and forwarding complaints or concerns to the right department.
  • Tutoring and Teaching Online Classes or Instructional Videos – Did you know you can make a living teaching others about some of your favorite subjects through video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo? These people teach everything from how to apply a sexy eyeliner to how to build Ikea furniture.
  • Science, Medicine, and Technology – Contrary to popular belief, there are positions for professionals in these fields that involve telecommuting. In recent years, there have been great advancements that allow doctors to see patients through video conferencing. Many pharmaceutical companies employ legions of nurses to answer phone calls related to patient concerns. Doctors, nurses, and scientists are also in great demand as consultants for new diagnostic technology, medical apps, tutoring, and teaching.

These are just a few ideas! Keep in mind that there is always a way to have a meaningful, fulfilling career with an active chronic illness; it just takes time, determination, and planning.

Learn more about living with a chronic condition in Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Illness by Ilana Jacqueline. (Cover design by Amy Shoup).


Reprinted with permission from Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness by Ilana Jacqueline © 2018 by Ilana Jacqueline. Used by permission of New Harbinger Publications.

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