In the Workplace

Will you be able to work during your cancer treatment? It depends on a number of factors, including the stage of your cancer, your overall health, your treatment, and the kind of work you do. Take some time to learn the protections you have as an employee and prepare for discussions with your employer. Also consider whether and how you might explain your treatment to co-workers. If you do take some time off for treatment, be patient as you get back up to speed when you return. You might enjoy getting back into your normal routines and being around other people.

Nearly half of people who were working when diagnosed with cancer have concerns about employment.

Working During Treatment

Some people with cancer continue to work and are able to do their jobs effectively while they get treatment. Others discover that they need to rest more or are just feeling too sick to keep up with their jobs. Federal and state laws may require that some employers allow you to work a flexible schedule. Meet with your employer about your needs and your options.

Be Prepared

Who you decide to tell at work is up to you. Don’t feel pressured to share or explain. In some cases, such as if you work in a competitive environment, it might not be in your best interest to share details with your co-workers.

  • Determine who you want to share the information with.
  • Consider starting with those you know best, as they might be able to help you develop a plan for telling others.
  • Schedule your chemotherapy treatments in the late afternoon or evening, or before the weekend, so you will have time to recover.
  • Create a list of your usual tasks so you can direct others in handling things when you are away.
  • Ask your employer if you can work from home some days.
  • Keep your employer up to date on how any schedule or other changes are working for you.

Know Your Rights

Understand the protections you have as an employee.

  • You cannot be fired for being sick so long as you fulfill all the duties required of your position.
  • You should not be asked to take a position you would not have considered before you got sick.
  • Employers need to accommodate qualified applicants or employees with disabilities, unless they can prove that doing so would be an undue hardship for the employer.
  • Keep records of discussions about your illness with your employer and copies of your job performance evaluations in case problems arise later.

Family Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons without losing their jobs. The act was designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities during circumstances such as child birth, adoption, and serious health conditions. FMLA lets certain employees take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year and requires that the employer maintain the employee’s group health benefits during the leave.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. People with cancer might have long-term disabilities that make it difficult to get to work or do their jobs. The ADA aims to enable people who can do the essential parts of their jobs to keep working during and after cancer treatment. Even if the person with cancer does not have a disability, he or she might be thought of as being disabled, which can lead to discrimination at work.

Returning to Work

After your treatment, going back to work can help you get back into your normal routines. In addition to the income, you might enjoy the social interactions of being around other people. As you plan your return to the workplace, discuss with your employer if alternative arrangements are possible, such as working from home, flex-time, or job sharing, as you get back up to speed again.

Are You Ready to Return to Work?

When deciding if you are ready to go back to work, consider these things:

  • The long-term effects of your treatment
  • The physical demands or stress of your job
  • Your follow-up care schedule
  • Whether or not you feel well enough to resume your job

Plan Your Return

Once you have determined that you’re ready to go back to work, you should make a plan for your return:

  • See if your employer is able to work with the schedule that fits your needs, whether it is full-time or part-time. Depending on your job, some employers might let you work from home.
  • Make sure that your workplace can accommodate your physical needs, and find out how to make changes if necessary.
  • Coordinate with your manager and your doctor to find times for follow-up care visits that won’t conflict with your other responsibilities.
  • Prepare mentally for the social aspects of your workplace, and plan how you will approach talking about your cancer with coworkers.

Telling Coworkers About Your Cancer

How open you choose to be about your cancer and health after treatment is your decision. Here are some things you should consider:

  • You don’t have to share your experiences if you don’t want to.
  • You may want to confide in a few close colleagues who can support you.
  • Some people will be more supportive than others. You will receive different reactions from different people. Sometimes people won’t know what to say at all.
  • Think ahead about how you will respond to others.

Adjusting Physically to Work

Even if you are mentally and emotionally ready to go back to work, your body may not be back to normal after treatment. If you are experiencing pain, fatigue, or other side effects or issues, these changes may help make things more manageable:

  • Take short breaks throughout the day with a few minutes of deep breathing or some simple exercises at your desk to reduce fatigue.
  • Keep lists and set alarms to remember important tasks or meetings.
  • If necessary, consider moving to a new position that may better fit your physical needs.
  • Learn when it is okay to set boundaries and say no to requests that are too demanding.
  • Schedule work breaks to take medications, see a doctor, or reduce fatigue.
  • Discuss any concerns that you may have with your manager.


Unfortunately, some cancer survivors find that they are not treated equally upon their return to the workplace. Some employers may have false beliefs about cancer, and others may automatically assume that someone with cancer is unable to complete work. As long as you are able to perform your job, your cancer history should not impact your opportunities at work. Discrimination can sometimes be subtle, but if you feel that you are being treated unfairly in some way due to your cancer, you should know your options.

Learn More About Employment and Cancer

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including working during cancer treatment, and going back to work.

The Patient Advocate Foundation provides patients with arbitration, mediation, and negotiation to help settle issues with access to care, medical debt, and job retention related to their illness.

Support for: 
Cancer Survivors