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To Work or Not to Work
working with cancer
Work may be the last thing on your mind in the midst of a cancer diagnosis, but familiarizing yourself with workplace policies will give you time to focus on your health — in and out of the office.

When newly diagnosed with cancer, your first thoughts won’t be related to work, wondering how to navigate your career while going through treatment. But, at some point, you will have to figure out just that. You will have to learn how to balance your job with treatment, and whatever side effects that result. You will have to figure out when and how to get back to work, if you’ve taken time off. And you will have to figure out how to maintain your income, because the bills won’t stop. 

You might be unfamiliar with the laws and programs in place to protect you and provide you with tools to help you continue to work following your diagnosis. Federal, state and local laws, employer policies and benefits, and access to insurance coverage are like pieces of a puzzle. Your puzzle probably won’t look like anyone else’s, and will depend on where you live and your type of job, among other factors. These puzzle pieces can be accessed separately, but hopefully they will fit together to help, not hinder, your recovery.

What laws can help me work through treatment or return to work?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects eligible employees against workplace discrimination based on their medical condition. Most states have laws similar to the ADA, but some are more protective. For example, state law may cover smaller employers than the ADA. For information about the laws in your state, visit TriageCancer.org/StateLaws.

One of the most useful tools the ADA provides is access to reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations are changes at work that help you continue to do your job, take time off or return to work. Some examples of reasonable accommodations for employees with cancer include:

·         Modifying work schedules (such as flexible working hours, more breaks, telecommuting options, or extended leave)

  • Modifying work spaces (such as the ability to switch offices and providing access to a closer parking spot)
  • Updating technology (such as providing things like headphones and speech-to-text software)
  • Changes in workplace policy (such as the ability to wear a hat or scarf)
  • Shifting non-essential job duties to other employees
  • Moving to an open position, if available


Caregivers aren’t legally entitled to reasonable accommodations, but  it doesn’t hurt to ask if you are caring for someone with cancer and it affects your ability to work. Many employers want to keep valued employees, and providing reasonable accommodations is a big help.

For more information about reasonable accommodations, visit TriageCancer.org/work-and-cancer.

What if I need to take time off for treatment? 

The Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that allows employees to take time off from work because of their own serious medical condition; or to care for a spouse, a parent or child. While taking leave, your job and your employer-sponsored health insurance coverage are protected. This means, generally, you cannot be let go because you are taking time off under FMLA. 

Many people will try and use paid time off they’ve accrued — such as sick or vacation time — without designating it as FMLA leave. However, it is in your best interest to use those benefits concurrently. The paid time off will allow you to keep receiving a paycheck, and the FMLA provides job and insurance protection.

Leave time under FMLA can be taken as a 12-week block of time or broken up — for instance, you could take every Wednesday off to visit the doctor.

For more information about work and cancer, visit TriageCancer.org/work-and-cancer.

How can I maintain some income if I am not working?

If you do not have any paid time off or need to take more than 12 weeks off, you may be able to maintain a portion of your income through disability insurance policies. Disability insurance can be purchased from an insurance company or can be offered through employers, through state disability insurance programs, or through one of two federal long-term disability programs.

For more information about disability insurance, visit TriageCancer.org/Disability-Insurance.

Am I able to keep the details of my diagnosis private at work?

Sharing information about your medical condition is a personal decision. However, you may be required to provide some information to your employer to show why you qualify for a reasonable accommodation or medical leave. But, if you do not want to share a cancer diagnosis with your employer, you can ask your healthcare team to focus on the side effects from treatment, such as fatigue or neuropathy, which are often medical conditions on their own.

For more information about disclosure decisions at work, visit TriageCancer.org/QuickGuide-Disclosure.  

What else should I be thinking about?

If you have health insurance coverage through an employer, it is useful to understand your rights to keep your employer-sponsored health insurance if you are taking time off and what your health insurance options are if you lose or leave your job.

For more information about health insurance and other cancer-related legal and practical issues, visit TriageCancer.org/Free-Cancer-Resources-By-Topic.

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