Returning to Work After Cancer

Even though you know that transitioning from cancer patient to cancer survivor is a major victory, you may still feel a bit defeated at the thought of transitioning to work. And understandably so. After all, it’s unlikely that things are exactly the same as they were prior to your diagnosis. Will your ability to perform at your pre-illness level be questioned by your employer and/or your coworkers? Will your pre-cancer workload be too much for you to handle now in the present? Are you confident in your decision to return to your old job or would it be better for you to start from scratch elsewhere? 

Because there is no guaranteed way to know how things will go, it’s a good idea to prepare ahead of time. By doing so, you can make the transition back into the workplace setting a little smoother. Before you schedule your return to work or set out to look for a new job, here are some things to consider. 

Be Realistic About Your Situation

For various reasons, you might feel mentally ready to return to work, but are you actually up for the challenge? 

Even if your job isn’t physically demanding, certain responsibilities— waking up at a certain time and being alert, responsive, and productive for several hours at a time— can be surprisingly tiring. Additionally, it’s rare to have a job that doesn’t cause at least a little bit of stress. Is re-entering the world of deadlines, responsibilities, and expectations something that you’re truly ready for? As a cancer survivor, your most important “job” is taking care of yourself. Because of this, it’s extremely important that you listen to your body and talk to your doctor and your loved ones. Returning to work can be a tremendously positive milestone— but if the time isn’t right, it could be a step in the wrong direction. If you aren’t physically and mentally ready to return to work, it can have a negative impact on your health. Don’t rush the process— you’ll get to where you need to be even if now is not the best time. 

Pick a Back-to-Work Schedule Best Suited for You

Even if you and your physician are in agreement about how physically and mentally able you are to return to work, it doesn’t necessarily mean a full-time schedule is what’s best for you. Oftentimes, transitioning back to work is more successful when you ease, rather than jump into a full schedule. Taking time away from the workplace to fight cancer is a lot different than taking time away from the workplace to “take a break.” Cancer treatment can take a toll on you, both physically and emotionally. Be sure to carefully consider if you’re fully ready to embrace a 40-hour-work week or if you’re better off returning part-time. If your job description allows, you might even consider working from home for a while. However you decide to proceed, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits all approach and that listening to your body and making adjustments as needed is what will set you up for success. Fatigue from cancer treatment can last for several months for some survivors, so be prepared for that. 


Identify Any Special Accommodations You May Need

When you are a cancer survivor, your work conditions might need to change a bit in order for you to be comfortable. Sometimes, there are physical differences that may require some special accommodations, even if they’re temporary. To identify what those are, it can help to make a list of what you know of or suspect you’ll need to request in order to be successful in the workplace. This might include:

  • Will a wheelchair or walker be needed?  
  • If standing for a long period of time is difficult can a stool be provided? 
  • Do you need to have access to a restroom more often?
  • Do you need to wear special apparel? This can be especially important to consider if your job requires you to wear a uniform. 
  • Should you talk with your boss about any possible side effects from the medication you are taking? 

Schedule a Call or Meeting with Your Supervisor

Last but definitely not least, take time to have an in-depth conversation with your supervisor before you announce your return to work. Share your excitement to return and use this time to describe any special requirements you may need as well as time away from the job that may be required for follow up appointments, physical therapy, etc. Give them a chance to ask questions to ensure that they better understand how cancer treatment has impacted your ability to work. By working together you can brainstorm solutions that can lessen the challenges many cancer survivors experience at work.

This discussion will help alleviate a huge source of anxiety you may feel as a cancer survivor preparing to return to work: fear of discrimination. The good news is that most employers are reasonable and will probably be more than happy to welcome you back after cancer treatment is over. With that said, there are times when an employer won’t react positively to your request to return to work because of the special accommodations you need, so be prepared for that. 

Hopefully Your Employer Will Give You Their Support

It’s understandable that you may worry about how you’ll be treated when you return after missing work for an extended period of time due to cancer treatment. Will you be penalized (directly or subtly) after your prolonged absence? If you’re able to return to work, but in a weakened or physically disabled state, you may worry about the physical logistics of navigating the workplace.

For this reason, certain laws have been set in place requiring employers to accommodate weakened or disabled employees. What’s important to know, though, is that there are some gray areas regarding illness-related termination. While federal law does require employers to make a reasonable effort to accommodate qualified job applicants or existing employees who have disabilities, the employer is not required to comply if he/she can prove that providing requested accommodations would create a hardship for the company (i.e., if complying with a request would endanger the company’s financial ability to stay in business). Reasonable requests that employers must comply with typically include:

  • Allowing an employee to adjust their work schedule, including reducing hours to part-time 
  • Restructuring an employees job so it’s more tolerable
  • Allowing an employee to transition to another open position within the company
  • Making changes to make the workplace accessible to those with disabilities (enlarging doorways, installing ramps, etc.)

The Law is On Your Side

As a cancer survivor, it’s only natural that you are concerned about being fired for missing too much work or discriminated against as a result of your illness. 

Thanks to federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, you have protection. As long as you are qualified and able to perform your job, your employer cannot legally terminate or demote you for being ill. Additionally, if you weren’t working before your cancer diagnosis and decide to enter the workplace after being sick, it is illegal for potential employers to discriminate against you because you have or had cancer. 

If additional time off is needed for extra treatment or symptom management after you return to work, your job is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act. Under this law, employees with serious illness can take up to 12 weeks off (all at once or spread out over time) and/or work part-time for a limited time.

As nice as it would be to have an employer welcome you back to work with open arms or land a job that’s fully accommodating to your needs, the reality is, it doesn’t always happen that way. To learn more about your rights as a cancer survivor, make sure to review the American Cancer Society’s Americans with Disabilities Act: Information for People Facing Cancer. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against in a way that has caused you to lose your ability to make a living, you might want to consider scheduling an appointment with an employment lawyer.




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