An Ottawa doctor says he’s speaking out after watching patients being forced to choose between treatment and employment.

Sandeep Sehdev, an oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital’s Cancer Centre, said he’s seen patients defer treatment so they can work.

In one case, a patient in Toronto with Hodgkin’s lymphoma died because he couldn’t take time off work for cancer treatment.

I think every Canadian would agree that’s a bit unfair.– Dr. Sandeep Sehdev, Oncologist at The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre

Federal employment insurance (EI) covers up to 26 weeks of leave for medical reasons. But in Ontario, jobs are only protected under the current Employment Standards Act for three days of sick leave. After that, it’s up to the employer.

For patients with cancer, this can impede their recovery. 

“I had a patient recently who had to work operating a backhoe in the winter, all through her four and a half months of chemo, for this exact reason,” Sehdev said. 

Limited options

Olivia Desjardins, intake co-ordinator and social worker with The Ottawa Hospital’s cancer program, said she’s also seen patients face this difficult choice.

Patients who are forced to stop working and rely on EI or disability benefits often struggle financially, Desjardins said.  

“The reality is that their incomes end up lower but their expenses remain the same, with the additional expenses that come with cancer,” she said.

Most unionized employees have some disability coverage, but those who don’t or who are precariously employed often face difficult choices.

While Sehdev said it’s still rare for patients to choose working over treatment, for those who do, the decision comes at a cost.

Leave protection

Sehdev said financial support is only part of the puzzle. He said unpaid leave protection is essential to protecting cancer patients.

Quebec patients already have 26 weeks of leave protection. Earlier this month, Manitoba introduced legislation that would align that province’s leave protection with federal policy.


Sehdev said an added challenge is ensuring patients can continue to work when possible.

“The return to their employment, to be functional parts of society, to pay taxes, to live their lives is increasingly important, and that’s where the challenge is.”

If a relative falls ill, employees have up to 37 weeks of unpaid leave protection under the Employment Standards Act, depending on the circumstances. However, a cancer patient will only have their job protected for three days.

Sehdev hopes Ontario will follow the lead of other provinces and change this policy.

“I think every Canadian would agree that’s a bit unfair,” he said.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour said in a statement it would begin consultations around protected leave for workers dealing with critical illness, to match the 26-week sickness benefit provided through EI.

The ministry announced the consultations in November, but did not provide a timeline for when they would begin.

Ottawa Morning11:41Patients choosing cancer treatment – or their job

Ontario only allows up to three days of unpaid sick leave. After that, your employment status is no longer protected, putting people in a difficult situation of potentially having to choose their job over their health.


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