Cancer and Your Career

By Rita Ross
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

A cancer diagnosis may upend your life, but working through your treatment can help you maintain a semblance of normalcy. Fortunately, the workplace is more accommodating than ever. In a recent survey, 85% of employers allowed breast cancer patients to reduce their work hours and 79% okayed a flexible schedule, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in Brookfield, WI. As a result, about 80% of patients work through their treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Of course, you need to know how to negotiate with your boss—and what to say to curious co-workers. Use these tips to get the accommodations you need:

Do your homework.

  • Find out what’s ahead. If you’re having surgery, ask your doctor how long it will take to recover and what side effects you might experience. Find out how they could affect your job performance and take notes, advises Kevin D. Stein, PhD, managing director of the Behavioral Research Center at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.
  • Know your legal rights. Federal laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, are on your side. In most cases, employees are entitled to medical leave and on-the-job modifications, such as breaks throughout the day, without fear of losing their job or being demoted.
  • Decide what you will say. You might tell your supervisor, I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and this is the situation I anticipate, then explain the conversation you had with your doctor about your treatment.

Talk with your boss.

  • Pick a quiet time to break the news. Make a lunch date or arrange to talk before or after work hours. Request confidentiality if you wish. Be sure to take notes after any discussions, and don’t be alarmed if your employer requests documentation of your cancer diagnosis. It’s a good idea to provide your employer with written details about your condition, advises Cancer and Careers, an advocacy group. 
  • Ask for what you need. Some people need minimal time off if a procedure is relatively minor. Others require more substantial time away from the job. “It depends on how extensive your treatment is and the kind of work you do,” says Stein. If you mostly sit at a desk, for instance, you may be able to manage treatment-related fatigue. “If you’re on your feet a lot, [side effects] might be more debilitating,” he says. Discuss your options with your boss, and remind him or her that any changes you’re requesting are temporary.

Manage co-workers.

  • You don’t have to say anything about your diagnosis, but you might consider doing so. If you decide to talk about it, start the conversation by saying something like I’ll be taking some time off or I’ll be cutting back my hours for a few weeks, then explain why. You might want to tell a few co-workers over lunch or a walk; or you may choose to make an announcement to a larger group. One caveat: Don’t break the news via email, which is impersonal and less private.
  • Give co-workers a chance to ask questions. Make it an opportunity to educate others about cancer and bust any misconceptions.
Published March 2014


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