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Cancer and the Workplace


The period after diagnosis and during treatment can involve changes when patients need to make adjustments in their lives, including their jobs. People affected by cancer may leave their jobs or reduce their work hours during this time.

Making the Decision

Your capabilities, needs, and the advice from your health care team should all be factors considered when deciding whether or not to return to work. Your physical condition will be affected by the size, location, and type of tumor, as well as the treatments you receive. Your mental condition may also be impacted by cancer and its treatments.

You may consider going back to work part-time to start. Some patients make the mistake of going back to full-time work too quickly. You must honestly evaluate what is in your capacity and best interest.

Returning to Work

For some people this goes smoothly and for others there are adjustments that need to be made. You may need to make adjustments if you have side effects from treatment that affect your work.

Some strategies for the transition back into work include the following:

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  • Organize your environment so that it helps you do your job well. It might help to:
    • Keep a calendar of appointments
    • Employ auditory and visual cues such as appointment reminders from your computer
    • Keep “To Do” checklists
  • Relearn tasks through repetition and modeling
  • Prioritize work assignments
  • Understand your limitations and adapt
  • Work with your employer to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace


Many aspects of returning to work can present challenges for cancer survivors. Some co-workers may not know what to say or ask awkward questions that make you feel uncomfortable.


Some co-workers may interact with you differently when you want to be treated the same way you were before cancer.

Other co-workers may treat you exactly as they did before your cancer even though you need them to offer some understanding that you’ve just been through a challenging experience.

Things to think About:
  • Identify how you want to communicate with your co-workers about your health
  • Communicate any special needs you have
  • Know that how you feel might change daily, weekly, and/or monthly
  • Understand that you’ve just been through a tough time and do not expect that everything will be the same
  • Ask for help as you need it
  • Practice patience


Ladies, check out Cancer and Careers, a wonderful online resource for working women with cancer! Their website features information for the newly diagnosed, during and after treatment, employers, co-workers, and caregivers.

Legal Rights

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has an educational document entitled “Questions and Answers About Cancer in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prevents job discrimination for disabled individuals.

If a person with a disability can perform the essential duties of a job, the employer cannot discriminate. By law, the employer must also make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

Your individual state may also have agencies and laws concerning disability caused by your disease.

Some of the questions answered by the EEOC about cancer in the workplace and the ADA include the following.
  • When is cancer a disability under the ADA?
  • When may an employer ask an employee if cancer, or some other medical condition, may be affecting her ability to do her job?
  • May an employer require an employee on leave, due to cancer, to provide documentation or have a medical exam before allowing her to return to work?
  • Are there any other instances when an employer may ask an employee about cancer?
  • May an employer explain to other employees that their co-worker is allowed to do something that generally is not permitted (such as work at home or take periodic rest breaks) because she has cancer?
  • If an employee has lost a lot of weight or appears fatigued, may an employer explain to co-workers that the employee has cancer?
  • What types of reasonable accommodations may employees with cancer need?
  • How does an employee with cancer request a reasonable accommodation?
  • May an employer request documentation when an employee who has cancer needs a reasonable accommodation?
  • Does an employer have to grant every request for a reasonable accommodation?
  • May an employer be required to provide more than one accommodation for the same employee with cancer?
  • Is an employer required to remove one or more of a job's essential functions to accommodate an employee with cancer?
  • May an employer automatically deny a request for leave from someone with cancer because the employee cannot specify an exact date of return?
  • When may an employer prohibit a person who has cancer from performing a job because of safety concerns?

For More Information:

Not Returning to Work

Some cancer survivors cannot work or handle their former responsibilities.


Temporary and permanent benefit programs offer financial assistance for those who cannot return to work.

A hospital social worker or local social services agencies can provide more detailed information and possibly assist with the application process.

Federal and State Disability Programs
  • Medicaid

Medicaid is a health insurance program for eligible people below a designated income level. It is jointly funded by federal and state governments. Each state has different eligibility requirements.

Medicare is a federal health insurance program for eligible individuals aged 65 or older, people with permanent kidney failure, and disabled people under the age of 65. Disabled applicants must have been receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits for 24 months to qualify. The Medicare hotline has information about state counseling and assistance programs and about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. HIPAA is a law that offers protections against employers who exclude employees from group coverage or who increase insurance costs because of an employee’s medical history.

The Social Security Administration offers two programs for people with disabilities: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Both programs define disability as "a medically determinable impairment which results in marked and severe functional limitations and which can be expected to result in death, or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is not based on need. SSDI is based on money deducted from a worker's paychecks. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a need-based program. Past contributions to the Social Security system do not affect eligibility.



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