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Returning to Work
After Cancer Treatment

If you can go back to work shortly after your treatment, you might find that it helps you maintain your sense of who you are and how you fit in. It might help even boost your self-esteem – not to mention your income. Your job may remind you that you have a life apart from cancer – you are a valued employee, a great boss, or a trusted co-worker. You’ll also have regular contact with others when you go back to work. Sometimes cancer can make you feel very isolated and lonely, and being around people can be a great comfort.

As you make plans, you may want to talk with your employer about possible options, like flex-time, job sharing, or working from home (telecommuting). Options like these may help ease your mind and body back into the demands of your job.

For some people the transition to working full-time is easy, but for others it takes some adjustment. You may find that you tire easily or have trouble focusing at first. Try to be patient and take care of yourself as you go back to your “normal” life.

Telling co-workers

How open you are with your co-workers about your cancer and health after cancer treatment is a personal decision. In some workplaces, it may not benefit you to share details. For instance, it may not be a good idea to share everything with your colleagues if you work in a highly competitive and fast-paced work environment. You might want to decide who you know best and who will most likely understand your situation, then confide only in those few people. They might be able to help you develop the best plan for telling others and give you ideas on how to transition back to work. Try not to feel pressured to share or explain things. Only you can decide what works best for you and your situation.

You will likely find that your co-workers have many different reactions to you when you go back to work. Those who know what you’ve been going through may react to your cancer diagnosis and absences with understanding and offers to help. Others may feel uncomfortable around you. Some people may be reminded of a loved one’s time with cancer. Many find cancer an unpleasant reminder of their own mortality. They may react awkwardly out of a vague fear or uneasiness, thinking of cancer as some kind of lurking, unknown danger. Some co-workers may resent that they had to take on extra duties because of your absence. Others may ask intrusive questions about your health or why you’ve been gone. Some might even avoid you.

It helps to think ahead about how you will handle the reactions of other people, and have a plan for what and how much you want to share. It might help you to read our document, Talking With Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer.

Legal protections

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. This 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. This may not be available to you if you have already taken 12 weeks off, or if your company does not have to follow FMLA. Talk to someone in your human resources department or another workplace expert to find out what your options are.

For some people, it may take a time of adjustment and some extra help to get back to their regular work schedule. If you try to go back to a full-time schedule before you’re ready, your work may suffer. Talk with your doctor about the kind of work you do and any problems you are having as you decide how to re-enter the workforce. You may need to start with shorter workdays or work fewer days a week until you see how things go. You may find that the way you work has changed, or you need something more to help you do your job.

Reasonable accommodations at work

Employers are not required to lower standards to accommodate an employee, nor must they provide personal-use items like glasses or hearing aids. But an employer must accommodate a qualified applicant or employee with a disability unless the employer can show it would be an undue hardship to do so. Examples of reasonable accommodations include, but are not limited to:

  • Providing or modifying equipment or devices
  • Restructuring a job
  • Offering part-time or modified work schedules
  • Reassigning an employee to a vacant position
  • Adjusting or modifying tests, training materials, or policies
  • Providing readers and/or interpreters
  • Making the workplace readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities

A vocational rehabilitation counselor can help with some of your job-related legal questions, but you may also want to look into laws that affect you and how you deal with any problems that may come up. Some cancer treatment centers offer referrals to vocational rehab counselors, so ask your cancer team’s doctor, nurse, or social worker.

To find out more about job accommodations and employment of people with limitations, contact the Job Accommodation Network at 1-800-526-7234 or visit their website, http://askjan.org/. They can talk with you about the requirements of the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, whichever applies to your case.

Worries about discrimination

Even though the public’s understanding of cancer is getting better, sometimes prejudices and fears are still found in the workplace. Even after your cancer treatment has ended, you may face work and workplace discrimination issues. If your workplace has a union, its officials can be good sources of information about illnesses and the workplace.\

Keep notes and records of your contacts with office personnel, including the names of the people with whom you spoke about your illness, the date and place you spoke, and the information you received. It’s also a good idea to keep copies of your job performance evaluations and any other written information about your work. These can be very helpful if problems come up later.

If you want to file a discrimination complaint

If you think you have been discriminated against at work on the basis of disability, you can file a complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You must do this within 180 days of the time you think the discrimination occurred (although some states or local laws allow you to take up to 300 days).

For more specific information about ADA requirements affecting employment, contact the EEOC at 1-800-669-4000 or 1-800-669-6820 (TTY). For general ADA information, answers to specific questions, free ADA materials, or information about filing a complaint, call the ADA Technical Assistance line at 1-800-514-0301 or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY).

Get more help and information

If you would like to read more about asking for help as you go back to work, get our document Americans With Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer by calling our toll-free number, or read it on our website. If you need extra time off as you go back to work, you may also want to ask for our document Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). These documents explain more about federal laws that can help many people with medical problems.

If you collected Social Security disability benefits during cancer treatment and recovery, you might want to try Social Security’s Ticket to Work Program. This free program offers support as you try to go back to work, and allows you to continue to receive disability benefits for a trial period while working. You can learn more online at http://choosework.net/about/index.html, or call 1-866-968-7842.

Along with the federal laws, some states also have laws about employing people with various illnesses, including cancer. These state laws may help you in other ways. You can find out more from your state’s Department of Labor. Contact information is in the blue pages of your local phone book, or visit the US Department of Labor website at www.dol.gov/whd/contacts/state_of.htm to find your state.

To learn more

The following information may also be helpful to you. These free materials may be ordered from our toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345, or read on our website, www.cancer.org.

Employment

Working During Cancer Treatment

Americans With Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer (also in Spanish)

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (also in Spanish)

Health insurance and financial issues

Health Insurance and Financial Assistance for the Cancer Patient (also in Spanish)

Off Treatment: Financial Guidance for Cancer Survivors and Their Families (also in Spanish)

What is COBRA? (also in Spanish)

What is HIPAA? (also in Spanish)

Coping with cancer

Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life (also in Spanish)

Talking With Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer (also in Spanish)

Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Treatment

National organizations and websites*

Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:

Job Accommodation Network
Toll-free number: 1-800-526-7234
TTY: 1-877-781-9403
Website: http://askjan.org/

    This free service from the US Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy has information about job accommodations for people with limitations, accommodation ideas, and tips on how to approach employers and ask for accommodations

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Technical Assistance
Toll-free number: 1-800-514-0301
TTY: 1-800-514-0383
Website: www.ada.gov

    For general information about the ADA, answers to specific questions, free ADA materials, or information about filing a complaint

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Toll-free number: 1-800-669-4000
TTY: 1-800-669-6820
Website: www.eeoc.gov

    Offers information on your rights and the laws that apply to your state, including filing charges for discrimination. Also has special information for people with cancer, “Questions and Answers About Cancer in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” which can be found on the EEOC website at www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/cancer.cfm

Cancer Legal Resource Center (CLRC)
Toll-free number: 1-866-843-2572
TTY: 213-736-8310
Website: www.cancerlegalresourcecenter.org

    Offers free, confidential information and resources on cancer-related legal issues to cancer survivors, their families, friends, employers, and others coping with cancer.

Cancer and Careers
Website: www.cancerandcareers.org

    For information on dealing with the potential impact cancer may have on your career, creating an action plan, sharing your diagnosis with employers and co-workers, legal issues, and insurance issues

Survivorship A to Z, Inc.
Website: www.survivorshipatoz.org/cancer

    Has financial, legal, and practical information for people facing a cancer diagnosis

References

US Department of Labor. Employment Laws: Disability & Discrimination. Accessed at www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/laws.htm on March 21, 2014.

US Department of Labor, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Fact Sheet: Final Rule on Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (2013). Accessed at www.dol.gov/ofccp/regs/compliance/factsheets/Sec_503_508c.pdf on March 24, 2014.

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Disability Discrimination. Accessed at www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/disability.cfm on March 24, 2014.

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Questions and Answers About Cancer in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Accessed at www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/cancer.cfm on March 21, 2014.

US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Filing a Charge. Accessed at www.eeoc.gov/facts/howtofil.html on March 21, 2014.


Last Medical Review: 03/24/2014
Last Revised: 04/15/2014