Cancer and the Workplace

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 01, 2019

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If you've just learned you have cancer, you may be thinking about how you'll tell the people in your life. You probably want to tell those closest to you, but what about your employer?

"At a time when you may feel that you have lost so much control because you have cancer, you do have a choice about this," says Monica Bryant, a lawyer and chief operating officer at Cancer Triage. "If you decide you'd like to keep your privacy, you can still access all the rights and benefits you're entitled to without disclosing that you have cancer."

What Are Your Rights?

If your employer has at least 50 employees, the organization must follow a law called the Family Medical Leave Act. The law gives employees who are seriously ill 12 workweeks of leave during a 12-month period. If you've been at your job at least 12 months in the last 7 years, and you've worked the equivalent of about 24 hours a week per year, you're probably eligible. Leave can give you the time you need for treatment, including surgery, recovery, and chemotherapy.

But you might need more than time off to help you through treatment. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes sure that organizations with at least 15 employees help make the adjustments employees need to do their job during and after a serious illness.

"Not enough people know about reasonable accommodations and utilize them to their full benefit," says Bryant. "They're one of the most important tools for individuals to either work through treatments or to return to work after treatment."

Reasonable accommodations, as the ADA calls them, are exactly that: accommodations, as long as they are within reason, that will help you do your job when you're sick. The things you might need depend on many things. A big factor is what kinds of side effects you have from treatment, such as fatigue, nausea, pain, or trouble thinking clearly. You won't know what accommodations would help you until you need them. And, that may change over time.

"What somebody needs soon after treatment is likely going to be different 3 months out, 5 years out, and 10 years out," says Bryant.

Some accommodations could include a change in working hours, the option to work from home, dictation software on your computer, or a more comfortable workstation. You can ask for these things as issues arise and make changes as you go.

"It's very flexible, and it's beneficial for both employees and employers," says Bryant. "The employer doesn't want to lose a valued employee [because they can't work in the current conditions] and go through the process of hiring someone else, so they benefit, too."

If you or your company doesn’t meet the criteria for you to get leave or accommodations, all is not lost. State laws may protect you, or the employer may have a policy for workers who need sick leave. "Many employers are much more generous than that bare minimum that the law requires," says Bryant.

Don't I Have to Tell the Boss?

But how, you might wonder, can you get the time off and the adjustments you need without telling your boss you have cancer?

For most people, it's the side effects of treatment, not the cancer itself, that keep you from working. It's chemotherapy-related pain or grogginess that might make it hard to do your job the way you usually do. You may choose to tell your employer about these symptoms rather than your diagnosis. For example, "I need medical treatment that will require me to take time off."

You and a health care provider will fill out a few forms for your leave and accommodations. It's important to know that your employer might give you a company-based form that asks for a diagnosis, but federal forms don't ask that.

"Some health care professionals will only fill out the Department of Labor form, so they're only sharing information that the employer is legally entitled to," says Bryant.

The federal form simply requires certification from a health care provider that you have a medical reason to request leave. If you don't want to share your diagnosis, tell your provider before you complete the forms. That way, the provider will omit your diagnosis from the paperwork and avoid words such as chemotherapy and oncology.

"One sticking point is where the form asks for your provider's specialty," says Bryant. "If you don't want to disclose, the provider can write 'internal medicine' rather than 'oncology.' It's absolutely true without inadvertently disclosing."

But Why Not Tell?

Some research shows that people whose cancer history is known in their workplace may face stereotyping and discrimination. People who share on a job application or in an interview that they are cancer survivors may be less likely to get the job.

Before you choose whether to disclose, it might be important to consider these possibilities. But, ultimately, you know your workplace and colleagues, and you should decide what is best for you. Whether you tell your employer that you have cancer is 100% your choice. You might feel empowered sharing your diagnosis with others, but that power comes from knowing that it is your decision.

Talk to Your Cancer Care Team

Before you talk to your employer, ask your care team how treatment might affect your ability to work. You might want to ask these questions, says Bryant.

  • How much time off will I need for surgery, recovery, chemotherapy, radiation, or other treatments? How much time do other people usually take?
  • What immediate side effects could I have from my treatment?
  • How might these side effects affect my ability to do my job?
  • Could I have new and different side effects over time?
  • Will I be able to predict certain side effects, such as when I might feel nausea, fatigue, or pain?

By the Numbers

46%: Percentage of people diagnosed with cancer who are of working age (20 to 64).

20%: Percentage of cancer survivors who have work-related limitations due to cancer up to 5 years later.

69%: Percentage of cancer survivors who say their work routine helped their recovery.

855: Number of cancer-related discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017.

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Show Sources


Monica Bryant, chief operating officer, Triage Cancer, Chicago.

Department of Labor: "Family Medical Leave Act."

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Job Accommodation Network.

Journal of Applied Psychology: "Selection BIAS: Stereotypes and discrimination related to having a history of cancer."

National Cancer Institute: "Employment outcomes among cancer survivors."

Cancer and Careers.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: "How to tell your boss you have cancer."

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