Going to Work During Cancer Treatment

three compassionate women listening to a co-worker in their office

Some people with cancer are able to continue their normal routine, including going to work, while they’re still in treatment. Others find that they need more rest or just feel too sick and cannot do as much.

If you can work during treatment, you might find that it helps you feel more like yourself. Your job may provide a necessary source of income, and it 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 to work. Sometimes cancer can make you feel very isolated and lonely, and being around people can be a great comfort.

If you’ve been out of work and plan to return, you may want to talk with your employer about possible options, such as flex-time, job sharing, or working from home. Options like these may help ease your mind and body back into the demands of your job.

Transitions can be easy

For some people, the transition to going back to work full-time is relatively easy. Aubrey Glencamp, a senior project manager for a financial services company in Atlanta, was diagnosed with male breast cancer in April 2016. He told his boss and co-workers about his cancer, and was out of work for about 3 weeks after his surgery.

Some of Glencamp’s coworkers visited him or sent him gifts while he was out. After he came back, they were understanding when he needed to take days off for chemotherapy, or work from home when he was coping with nausea, fatigue, or other side effects from treatment. The drugs also affected his short-term memory and critical thinking skills, what many cancer patients called chemo-brain. As a result, he needed more time to respond to work issues.

“I had a light work load,” said Glencamp. “My boss and my team made accommodations for me. They were all very encouraging in telling me to stay at home as long as I needed to. Even when I came into the office, they said I could go home and work, instead.”

Transitions can be hard

Jane Johnson’s transition back to work after colorectal cancer treatment in November 2016 wasn’t nearly as smooth. A marketing administrative coordinator for a time share company in Oregon, Johnson told her manager about her diagnosis and asked to have her office moved closer to the main work space so she wouldn’t have to walk as far. Instead, the company put her on short-term disability leave. “I thought it was cool at first, but it got more vicious as time went on,” said Johnson.

After her short-term disability ran out, Johnson was switched to long-term disability, which didn’t include employer health insurance coverage. She eventually qualified for Medicaid, but not until after she maxed out her credit cards paying for treatment, which included several surgeries and chemotherapy.

In addition, Johnson lost touch with her co-workers during her leave. “It was really hard; I was really upset,” she said. “It made me feel like my whole world was ripped apart.”

Even so, Johnson returned to her job once her doctors said she was healthy enough to go off of disability. “I really didn’t want to go back there, but I did,” said Johnson. She needed the paycheck. But she struggled with chemo-brain, and after a couple of weeks found a new job at another company, hoping for a fresh start. But at the new job, Johnson’s memory problems made it difficult to learn the ropes, and after 6 weeks she was fired. She’s now working as a cashier at a retail store that provides health insurance.

Tips from the experts

Returning to work during cancer treatment is different for everyone. Your attitude toward working, your health, and your work environment all factor in. Many aspects, including the reaction of your co-workers, will be out of your control. But there are things you can do to help better manage your time and work:

  • Plan chemo treatments late in the day or right before the weekend to allow time to recover.
  • If possible, explore options like working from home some days. This might help you feel less tired and allow you to take care of yourself more easily if you have problems.
  • Getting help at home can mean more energy for work. Certain daily chores may be divided among friends and family members.
  • Unless there is a reason not to, let co-workers know about your situation. They can be great sources of support. They may even be able to help you come up with ways to better manage your work during this time.
  • Keep your supervisor up to date on how well your schedule or other changes are working for you.
  • Make a log of your usual work schedule and duties. Refer to it when you set up flex-time, shifted duties, or time off.
  • Make a detailed list of job duties so you can direct others in handling things when you’re out of the office.

You have rights

There are laws that may help protect your employment during periods of illness. Some people with job problems related to cancer are protected by the Rehabilitation Act or 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. Talk to someone in your human resources department or another workplace expert to find out what your options are as soon as possible.

In some situations, employers must accommodate a qualified applicant or employee with a disability unless the employer can show it would be an undue hardship to do so. This could mean making changes to work schedules, equipment, or policies. Find out more about job accommodations and employment of people with limitations from the Job Accommodation Network .

Words of wisdom

Today, both Glencamp and Johnson feel good and have no evidence of cancer.

Johnson says it’s important to find out about your rights before you talk to your employer, and learn how your health insurance and finances may be affected by decisions you make. She also says cancer patients who need financial help should consider applying for social security benefits and talking to their hospital or care center about reducing medical bills.

Glencamp offers this advice for people with cancer considering going back to work:

  • Take your time. Don’t go back to work too early if you don’t have to.
  • It’s OK if you have bad days when you feel like you can’t function.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  • Take care of yourself first.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Learn about returning to work after cancer treatment from the American Cancer Society or call our National Cancer Information Center toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345.


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