Tips for Navigating Work While Undergoing Cancer Treatment


Cancer treatment in and of itself can be challenging but life does not stop when you have cancer.  While some people opt to take time off of work during cancer treatment, many choose to continue working if possible during treatment.  This may be decided because not working is simply not an option (financially or because health insurance is dependent upon employment status) or because the patient wants to keep life as normal as possible during the time.  But, as anyone who has undergone cancer treatment will tell you, cancer treatment is hard and draining both physically and mentally.  Continuing your normal schedule while also undergoing cancer treatment can be challenging for a wide range of reasons but that does not mean it is not possible.  Each patient is different and each diagnosis is different so the ability to continue working will depend largely on patient and diagnosis as well as the type of work the patient does but, should your doctor approve, work is certainly possible during treatment.  Below we offer some tips for working during cancer treatment.

1. Telling Co-Workers

  • The decision to tell your co-workers you have cancer and how much exactly you want to share about your diagnosis and treatment is a very personal decision.  Some people choose not to disclose their diagnosis or treatment at all in the workplace for a variety of reasons such as not wanting to be discriminated against, not wanting sympathy, not wanting to be overly personal at work or more.  It can feel uncomfortable to talk about something so personal with co-workers that you may or not be very close with and they may have questions that make you uncomfortable.  If there are a few trustworthy people you want to discuss your diagnosis and treatment with start with them and ask them to keep it private.  This way you will have co-workers who understand why you may be more lethargic or sick than normal.  Having a confidante at work can help ease the process.  Make a list of your duties so that should a sudden need to take time off of work arise, your co-workers will know what needs to be done.  While most employees choose to tell their employer that they have cancer, it is not a requirement.  If you feel comfortable, inform your supervisor at work so that they will know why you may need to take more time off for treatment or side effects.

2. Understand Your Rights

  • As mentioned previously, some people fear discussing their cancer diagnosis at work because of perceived potential discrimination.   Whether they feel their job is threatened or they are being passed up for promotions because of a diagnosis, no one should feel discriminated against at work.  In fact, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of their health status.  For this reason, it is important to know your rights as an employee.  The American Cancer Society discusses what rights cancer patients have in the workplace, “You have the same rights as anyone else in the workplace and should be given equal opportunities, regardless of whether you tell people at work about your cancer. Hiring, promotion, and how you are treated in the workplace should depend entirely on your abilities and qualifications. As long as you are able to fulfill your job duties, you can’t legally be fired for being sick. You also shouldn’t have to accept a position you never would have considered before your illness. Many people with job problems related to cancer are protected by federal laws like the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Some people also benefit from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law lets many people with serious illnesses take unpaid leave to get medical care or manage their symptoms. The leave can take many forms, such as a part-time schedule for a limited time, or taking off 1 or 2 days a week for a while. Not all employers are required to follow FMLA. Talk to someone in your human resources department or another workplace expert to find out what your options are.”

3. Plan Ahead for Treatment Symptoms

  • Cancer treatment symptoms can vary significantly between patients depending on their own health, ability to handle symptoms, type of cancer and type of treatment.  Many patients find that if they plan to have treatments at the end of the week it gives them the weekend to recover before needing to return to work.  This will help reduce the amount of time a patient takes off of work and can allow a patient more time to recover with dignity and privacy.  Patients should keep small snacks at work so that, should hunger strike, there is no need to wait for food since you never know when nausea may occur.  Consider asking for help or hiring extra help around the house so that when you get home from work it is time for you to rest and recuperate before your next day of work.

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