Cancer and the Workplace

If you were just diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to worry about how this will impact your job. This depends to a large degree on the nature of your job, staging of your cancer, type of cancer treatment, and your overall health. For example, if you have a physically demanding job outside a typical office (e.g. construction worker or firefighter), you may have to ask if you can be reassigned to administrative duties temporarily. If you work in an office, you may be able to continue working full time and schedule treatment before or after work hours or take sick days when necessary.

Some people experience nausea, memory loss, and a lack of concentration from certain cancer treatments that can negatively impact work. Before you start treatment, ask your doctor if chemo, radiation, or other medication side effects are likely to affect your daily routine.

Telling Co-Workers

Don’t feel pressured to share or explain every detail with coworkers. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to a few people you are close to at work about your situation. They may be able to offer support and devise solutions to help you better manage your workload. Be aware that everyone reacts differently to news about cancer. For example, if you tell someone who lost a parent to cancer, this may awaken troubling and sad memories they prefer not to confront. A loved one or best friend outside work might give you advice about what to say to coworkers, but you are the only one who knows what feels right for your particular situation.

Helpful Tips

Cancer in the workplace can be associated with physical, emotional, and practical challenges. Planning ahead for short absences can help alleviate stress for you and coworkers. The following tips are helpful for meeting common challenges.

  • Schedule chemo or radiation sessions late in the day or right before the weekend to allow time to recover.

  • Explore the possibility of working from home a few days, especially if you have a longer commute.

  • Keep your supervisor apprised of your treatment schedule in case changes need to be made to accommodate this.

  • Make a log of your usual work schedule and a detailed list of job duties. This will come in handy if coworkers are temporarily assigned to some of your duties.

  • Track job deadlines, take notes at meetings, make to-do lists, and set realistic goals.

  • If you have a demanding workload with short deadlines you know you cannot meet, ask for help.

  • Ask family members or close friends to help with daily chores such as cooking dinner and housework.

Taking Leave: What You Need to Know

If you find that you cannot work due to the side effects of your cancer or treatment, you are protected legally in many cases. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees who meet certain criteria can legally take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave annually and retain their employee health benefits. Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide medical leave under FMLA. To qualify for FMLA, the following criteria must apply:

  • Worked for an employer a minimum of 1,250 hours in the past 12 months.

  • Treatment and recovery from a health condition lasting 3 days in a row, including any treatment thereafter.

  • Treated two or more times by or under the supervision of a healthcare provider, or once with an ongoing treatment regimen.

  • A permanent or long-term condition for which treatment may not be effective (e.g. terminal cancer).

  • Supervision by a healthcare provider is required, but active treatment is not.

  • Absences for surgery or multiple treatments for a condition which would likely result in a period of incapacity if left untreated (e.g. chemotherapy or radiation treatments).

Being diagnosed with cancer may be the most difficult thing you have encountered in your life. It comes with many challenges, including your job. As long as you feel well enough to continue working, with a little bit of planning and flexibility, it is possible.

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